27 July 2007

Junie B. Jones and the Judge

In a controversy-stirring article on Barbara Park's Junie B. Jones books yesterday, the New York Times quoted Elizabeth Bird of Fuse #8: "There are parents who will defend her till their death and those that call her loathsome. It’s unusual to find that sort of divide for early chapter books. They’re just not the sort of books that usually get much attention."

Certainly I hadn't paid attention to this controversy. I had no idea Park's series was unpopular anywhere, nor that its unpopularity focuses on, as the Times would have it, narrative voice. Specifically, Junie B.'s improper use of the past tense in irregular verbs, adverbs, and other grammatical niceties.

Child-development experts have actually studied how young children learn irregular verbs. It's a predictable process that shows them grasping the rules of English grammar ("adding ‘—ed’ to verbs produces the past tense") before moving on to our language's exasperatingly long list of exceptions. Junie B. is a little behind her peers--most kids catch onto common irregular verbs by kindergarten and first grade. But it's those verbs that break the rules, not her.

(For a different quibble with the Times article, see Language Log's objection to its parallel to the phonics v. whole language debate.)

I suspect Junie B.'s detractors actually dislike having to read the books aloud in what sounds like baby talk. All the more reason to make them transition books: "Daddy has to, um, change the paper towel roll now. Do you think you can finish this chapter all by yourself?" But the critics seem to complain that books like Park's confuse readers about proper grammar and lower our standards.

As a test of whether popular children's literature has the power to warp readers' ability to spell, I give you The Real Diary of a Real Boy, by Henry A. Shute:

Father thot i aught to keep a diry, but i sed i dident want to, because i coodent wright well enuf, but he sed he wood give $1000 dolars if he had kept a diry when he was a boy.

Mother said she gessed nobody wood dass to read it, but father said everybody would tumble over each other to read it, anyhow he wood give $1000 dolars if he had kept it. i told him i wood keep one regular if he wood give me a quarter of a dolar a week, but he said i had got to keep it anyhow and i woodent get no quarter for it neither, but he woodent ask to read it for a year, and i know he will forget it before that, so i am going to wright just what i want to in it. Father always forgets everything but my lickins. he remembers them every time you bet.
Shute (shown above) claimed this book was his own childhood diary, but it was fiction. It fits into a literature of "typical" American boyhood that had its highest moments in Thomas Bailey Aldrich's The Story of a Bad Boy, Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, and Booth Tarkington's Penrod.

Shute published The Real Diary of a Real Boy in 1902, and by 1906 it had gone through twelve printings. For the rest of his life he wrote sequels in the voice of young "Plupy" with titles like Sequil, Brite and Fair, and Chadwick & Shute: Gob Printers (our wirk is equil to none).

Shute (1856-1943) was an educated man: a graduate of Exeter and Harvard who became a municipal judge in New Hampshire. His books were undoubtedly popular. So if a widely read book series with deliberately bad English could really destroy American letters, that would have happened before June B. Jones's critics were born.


Charlotte said...

Goodness, it sounds like Molesworth...

J. L. Bell said...

Molesworth sometimes seems to spell the way he does as a secret schoolboy code, or a way to protest the horrid System. I think Plupy just doesn't know how to spell.