In 1992, Barbara Park introduced young readers to a headstrong, unpredictable kindergartner in Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus. Kids – and their parents and teachers – were clearly happy to make her acquaintance. That novel went on to sell 3.3 million copies and is currently in its 64th printing. Twenty years and 29 books later, there are a total of 52 million Junie B. Jones books in print. and the series has been translated into 12 languages. To mark the anniversary, Random House Books for Young Readers this week released a commemorative edition of the inaugural title, which will contain full-color art by Denise Brunkus, sample drawings from her sketch pad, and an interview with Park conducted by Junie B. Jones herself.
The series was initially conceived as one of three that would launch a line of early chapter books, recalls Mallory Loehr, v-p and publishing director of Random House/Golden Books for Young Readers, who arrived at the house in 1990 as an editorial assistant to Kate Klimo and Linda Hayward (the series’ original editor). “Janet Schulman, who was publisher at the time, came up with the idea of creating a line that would be a bridge between the Stepping Stones books and the Step into Reading books,” Loehr explains. “It was initially called Star Steps, because the three authors she approached to write series for the line – Barbara Park, Mary Pope Osborne, and Louis Sachar – were established authors on the Random House list.”
To launch that line, whose name was changed to First Stepping Stones and later folded into the Stepping Stones line, Osborne created The Magic Tree House, Sachar penned the Marvin Redpost series, and Park gave life to Junie B. Jones. “It was never my intention to write an ongoing book series,” Park says. “The initial plan was to write four books for the new early chapter book series. The truth is, Junie B. sort of hit the page running and – quite unexpectedly – kept on going.”
At the start Park had reservations about writing for six- to nine-year-old readers. “I wasn’t sure that I could write for such a young audience,” she says. “So I decided to write in the first-person as a five-year-old and see what happened. Within the first four sentences, I discovered I had a character who hated her middle name. By the second page, I knew she was a wild child, who – big surprise – had not yet mastered the Queen’s English. And when I finally finished the book, I thought maybe I could write one or two more. I was a little low with my expectations, apparently.”
Low indeed: Junie B. continues to inspire Park, whose latest novel starring this beloved heroine is the Thanksgiving-themed Junie B. First Grader: Turkeys We Have Loved and Eaten (and Other Thankful Stuff), due out in August.
The Winning Look of the Books
Like Loehr, Cathy L. Goldsmith, v-p and associate publishing director of Random House/Golden Books for Young Readers, who heads up the art department, has also worked on the Junie B. Jones series from book one. It was she who lined up Denise Brunkus as the series’ illustrator. “Hers was, in fact, the only portfolio I showed to editorial and then to Barbara,” she says. “Denise had mailed me samples from her portfolio, and I’d tacked up her sketches of kids on my bulletin board. I said to myself, ‘One day I’ll get to work with her.’ When I read Barbara’s manuscript for the first book, about this great kid with attitude, I thought, ‘Denise can definitely do attitude.’ ”
Twenty years later, Goldsmith knows she made the right decision, given the pivotal role that the art plays in the Junie B. Jones novels. “The books are very character-driven, and Denise does a great job of rendering what Barbara has already seen in her head and created verbally. Denise can have Junie B. cock an eyebrow and change her attitude completely.”
Goldsmith is also thrilled with the new art that Brunkus created for the commemorative edition of the inaugural novel, the first time that a Junie B. Jones adventure will be illustrated in color. “I remember when Denise sent in the art for the title page, picturing all of the characters together. We’d never before had the chance to see the characters in one place—and they were in color, too!” Goldsmith is also grateful that Brunkus had saved her original character sketches from the early 1990s, so that they could be included in the anniversary edition. “Denise is famous for keeping everything she’s ever done, so she didn’t have to reconstruct the sketches,” Goldsmith says. “ t’s fun to see Junie B.’s progression from when she was a bit younger to now.”
The art director also was instrumental in redesigning [the Junie B. Jones Web site] www.JunieBJones.com. “The original site was created when sites were rudimentary, and we had no idea what they could be for us,” she observes. “For the new site, we went back to the drawing board and enhanced it up the wazoo, making it much brighter and more active and colorful.”
An Appeal Across the Generations
Shana Corey, executive editor of Random House Books for Young Readers, has been editing the Junie B. Jones books since 2000, and feels “enormously lucky” to have inherited the series’ editorial mantle. She pinpoints several main reasons for the success and longevity of the series. “Barbara Park is one of the funniest women in the universe,” she says. “She doesn’t take herself too seriously and doesn’t take her characters too seriously either. She doesn’t ever want her books to be precious, or at all cookie cutter, and you see that in Junie and her outside-the-box thinking. Her books are laugh-out-loud funny, and you’re always surprised by what comes out of Junie’s mouth. It’s that sense of surprise that makes the books so special and funny to kids.”
Corey also emphasizes the series’ appeal to adults as a key to its success. “We get boxes of letters a week from parents and teachers, who say that these are books they have turned to get kids hooked on reading and realize that reading is not work. Because of the books’ humor, kids forget how hard it can be to begin reading. And the books are so funny that parents enjoy them too and don’t get tired of reading them over and over again. The books work on all levels.”
Park echoes that belief. Asked what she feels has made the series so popular, she answers, “I’ve always thought that the books are successful because teachers and parents have as much fun with them as their kids. I think it’s that simple.”
And what does it mean to her to see Junie B. enter her third decade? “For 20 years I’ve gotten to laugh my way through my work,” she says. “For me, that’s a dream job. “But even starting out, I knew that, in order to keep the series fresh, I would only be able to write one or two books a year. So I guess what I really love about the series’ longevity is that, in our very demanding ‘I want it now’ culture, Junie B’s readers have always waited so patiently for her. That has meant the world to me.”
Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus Commemorative Edition. Barbara Park, illus. by Denise Brunkus. Random House, $14.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-375-86841-2