Barbara Park, author of many books for children – including the bestselling Junie B. Jones series – died on November 15 at age 66, after a long battle with ovarian cancer. Here, some of those with whom she enjoyed lengthy professional and personal relationships pay tribute.
Kate Klimo, former publishing director, Random House Books for Young Readers & Golden Books
As editor-in-chief of Random House in 1990, I was witness to the birth of Junie B. Jones. I’ll never forget the adrenal overdrive everyone kicked into when they found out that Barbara Park was writing about an obstreperous kindergartner. Egads! These books were supposed to be geared to first and second graders. “Everybody knows grade-schoolers won’t want to read about kindergartners!” was the prevailing wisdom. I was sent to Barbara to try to talk her out of this silly notion. She heard me out and then, with utmost elegance, told me to blow it out my barracks bag.
I remember the first sales conference Barbara Park attended. It was at the Sanibel Harbour Beach & Tennis Club. If you’ve ever been there, you’ll know they feature a set of pungent complimentary bath products. Barbara mounted the dais, peered out over the ballroom crowd, wrinkled her nose, and said, “Is it me or does everyone smell like mango?”
In the following years, when I went to Barbara on the occasions that sales or marketing or B&N or Borders or whomever had a bee in their bonnet about her title choice or cover concept, her reaction was always: “Is it me, or does everyone smell like mango?” (This was our code-talk for Publishers’ Cold Feet or Publishing Committees Running Rampant.) Needless to say, the titles and the concepts remained as they were. Barbara’s feet were anything but cold. Brave and true to her vision, she hot-footed it to fame and glory. Rest in peace, Babs, on a bed of laurels tied with a polka-dotted hair bow.
Amy Berkower, chairman, Writers House
In the spring of 1984, Barbara Park queried me about the benefits of having an agent. After she received my response, she wrote: “I think you’ve made a believer of me. The phrase that convinced me I needed an agent was ‘negotiating contracts.’ As soon as I read it, I looked up at my husband and said, ‘Negotiating? Was I supposed to be ‘negotiating?’ ”
In remembering Barbara, I think about how spot-on funny she was, and about her unique ability to make multiple generations laugh simultaneously. I also think about her integrity. In 2000, when Barbara decided, despite the demands of the market, to only write one Junie B. Jones book per year, I urged her to allow Random House to publish the books in hardcover editions as well as paperback. They were certainly good enough. And it made sense from a business and marketing perspective. Barbara, however, was reluctant because she didn’t want her fans to pay more for books for which they were accustomed to paying less. After much discussion, she relented, under two conditions: that the less expensive paperback be published three months after the hardcover, and anyone who complained about the price be given a free edition.
She was a class act.
Anne Schwartz, publisher, Schwartz & Wade Books, Random House
I had the incredible pleasure of editing Barbara Park from 1985 to 2002, in the pre-Junie days. We worked on several books together, including the one we both loved best: Mick Harte Was Here.
As I was thinking about what to write for this article, a couple of phrases kept echoing in my head: No, you can’t say that, you’ll be fired and, No, you can’t say that, you’ll be imprisoned. What I can say is that when I was pregnant, Barbara was the only person to tell me that sometimes one might want to kill one’s own child. She shared with me the Rules of Etiquette for Letting One’s Boss Know that One Would Be Leaving Knopf for Simon & Schuster. Wearing her favorite Groucho Marx mustache and eyeglasses, she demonstrated for me how to rearrange books at Barnes and Noble so that Mick Harte, just for example, was featured more prominently. And she could argue at length about which Peeps were more flavorful, the yellow or the pink.
Barbara Park was hilarious, as any of us who have met Junie B. or Mick Harte or Rosie Swanson can tell you. She was also subversive, unbelievably dedicated to her craft and her readers, and had a huge heart. I will miss her.
Shana Corey, editor-at-large, Random House
I had the good fortune to be Barbara’s editor and worked with her for the past 13 years or so. Barbara was very (very) hands on, so editing her meant that we talked several times a week, sometimes several times a day. And because she was Barbara Park, talking to her meant laughing with her – often until my sides hurt and I’d have to shut my door to avoid annoying the rest of the floor.
There are too many funny conversations to recount, but one I’m remembering today is when we were discussing the art suggestions for Junie B. First Grader: Shipwrecked. Junie B. and her class are putting on a play about Christopher Columbus. Junie is playing one of the boats and the play turns into a free-for-all with the kids racing to get to land first. Christopher Columbus finally jumps overboard and “swims” to shore to avoid the massive pileup. But how does one swim across a stage exactly? Barbara had to get it right (she was always meticulous about every detail). So naturally, she insisted that we try it ourselves – she in and Arizona and me in New York, crawling across our respective office floors on our bellies, laughing hysterically – the phones on speaker so we could talk through exactly what we were doing and how you would describe the arm movements, etc.
She was just so effortlessly funny. She never took herself too seriously (or let anyone around her take themselves too seriously). She abhorred preciousness of any kind and found humor in everything – she could even make stories about the chemo waiting room funny. I’ve never laughed as much as I did with her and don’t imagine I ever will again – she had me in hysterics regularly (even toward the end, when we were also crying). She was wildly inappropriate, incredibly loyal, hilariously self-deprecating, and she was absolutely uncensored and honest about everything. As a result I trusted her more than just about anyone in the world.
She wore her heart on her sleeve and was passionate about the things she believed in-everything from the people she loved, to politics, to stickers in the back of books (she thought they were bleeping idiotic). She also hated publicity – any time I suggested anything that seemed remotely “salesy” she’d say, “We don’t want to look like we’re trying to sell books,” and I’d remind her that well, we were a publisher, selling books wouldn’t actually be a terrible thing. But it just wasn’t her priority – her priority was making the very best books she could, books that felt honest and true and made kids laugh. A couple years ago, when we were in a long debate that was going in circles about something that I thought would be a quick call (probably about stickers), she sensed I was hitting a wall and said, “You know you love me.” I jokingly grumbled back and she kept nudging, “Come on.... I love you. I love you....” until I agreed and that became our signature sign-off. Because of course, as with everything, she was right. I loved her and love her so much and cannot imagine a world where I can’t pick up the phone and call her 100 times a day. I’m so sorry that she’s not here and so very grateful that she was my friend.
Kathy Dunn, publicist, Random House Children’s Books
Barbara Park and publicity were not an easy mix. I learned this very quickly when I became Barbara’s publicist back in 1999. Barbara never felt comfortable being in the “spotlight,” so to speak, and was not a fan of flying, which made author tours tough. I was able to wear her down a few times for tours over the years, however, and she had one caveat – if she was going, then I had to as well. And as a result of our travels together, I have some of the funniest memories of Barbara that still make me laugh out loud. The first was during the inaugural Junie B. Stupid Smelly Bus Tour in 2004. The tour had come through Arizona, where Barbara resided, and she was doing a few signings in conjunction with the events. We drove to the first event in Barbara’s brand-new car, and she had mentioned how she wanted to kind of sneak into the event and not draw attention to herself (thus taking away attention from the tour). However, when we got to the store and parked the car, the car alarm started blaring before we even were able to get out. Since the car was new, Barbara had no idea how to turn anything off, and we were forced to call our Mr. Woo actor to come out to the parking lot, where he proceeded to try to shut the alarm off (in costume). You can get the visual – instead of quietly entering, we virtually announced our presence to the hundreds of fans entering the store – all of whom were pointing and telling their parents “That’s Barbara Park... how come her alarm won’t turn off?” I think we were in hysterics for the remainder of the event, and well into the night, as, over our classic glasses of tour wine, we replayed the scene over and over.
My second memory is from the 2008 Ma! There’s Nothing to Do Here! tour. Barbara was in remission, and feeling really great. We had been on an insanely early flight into Dallas – the kind that you roll out of bed and just show up for. Looking like Survivor contestants, we checked into the Ritz-Carlton and headed right to the restaurant, as we were starving. To say that we stood out would be an understatement. The restaurant was full of women decked out in the finest attire, attending a shower of some sort. We slid into our seats, grateful that pretty much no one had seen us. But right before we ordered, the fire alarm started ringing, and we were forced to evacuate – alongside all of the pretty, clean people. We looked at one another and started giggling – the kind that you just can’t control. And that pretty much sealed the deal on us not staying incognito. It was a tiny incident, but we laughed about that forever. It was the simple moments such as these that will make me miss Barbara the most – her contagious laughter, fierce loyalty, and the ability to see the humor in every situation.
Cathy L. Goldsmith, associate publishing direcor, Random House/Golden Books Young Readers Group
I had the honor of working with Barbara on all of the Junie B. books. Officially my title was art director, but in practice it was co-art director, since Barbara was very involved in how the books looked. Obviously, she reviewed cover and interior sketches, as well as finished art and mechanicals. When it was time for Junie to go to first grade and learn to write, Barbara wanted a special font that was Junie’s own, so I volunteered to create a font. Barbara jumped on that idea and sent me copies of letters she had received from children over the years. She circled the lower case “e” in one letter, the cap “B” in another letter, and so on until we had a full alphabet, although not in one place. We worked on the font and worked on the font and worked on it some more until it finally seemed right.
Years later, when we were working on Junie B.’s Essential Survival Guide to School, Barbara put her designer hat on again. She wanted the interior pages to look like Junie had written and drawn in a blank lined notebook. Each page needed to feel like a first-grader had actually filled them in. She decided that the best way to make sure this happened was to do the art and layouts herself. So Barbara bought a Mac and began learning to use Photoshop! She created all the interior art herself and even typeset most of the book in Photoshop to show us exactly how the art and text were supposed to come together. She worked on the layouts for one complete summer. I mention this because the books, all of them, are such fun and seem so easy. But Barbara worked very hard to make them that way. Children may not realize how hard she worked, but I know. And I thank her for that.