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Balancing Act

Giving thanks for Junie B. Jones, and Barbara Park

Author Barbara Park helped parents loosen up a bit

Heidi Stevens

Balancing Act

November 24, 2013

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Barbara Park's "Junie B. Jones" books, more than any haphazardly kept journal or carefully curated photo album, capture how dramatically my parenting has changed in the past eight years.

And how dramatically parenting has changed me.

Park's death at age 66 from ovarian cancer, reported last week, left me grieving for the world of kid's literature, which never gets to see what Park could come up with next.

My daughter, 8, is named June. We started calling her Junie before she was born. Shortly after she arrived, my friend Autumn, an elementary school teacher with a master's degree in library sciences, started mailing us "Junie B. Jones" books.

I glanced at the titles skeptically — "Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus," "Junie B. Jones and That Meanie Jim's Birthday" — and placed them high on her bookshelf. I was busy weaving a pillowy cocoon of soft lullabies and smiling sheep and proper grammar for my daughter.

"Stupid?" "Smelly?" "Meanie?" I don't think so. I was hardly alone in my prejudice. The American Library Association includes Park on its most frequently challenged authors list (along with Toni Morrisson and Maurice Sendak).

Mostly, though, I was green and terrified and ignorant. My daughter was a delicate little clay vessel, waiting to be shaped and filled up by ideas and images and words of my choosing. Her tastes would reflect my tastes. Her mannerisms would be shaped by my mannerisms. Her heroes, literary and otherwise, would mimic my heroes.

A petulant, fictional troublemaker who used "me" when sentences clearly called for "I" would, I thought, sabotage my best efforts. Reading about smelly school buses would prejudice my daughter against the noble endeavor that is public schooling.

Parenting was, I thought, an extremely important, uniquely virtuous, complete and total drag.

Thankfully, a thousand small, medium and huge experiences got in the way of that ill-advised parenting style. Baby sitters, other children, commercials, preschool, genetics and a host of other factors influenced my daughter and her world view.

She became hilarious and daring and spirited and, occasionally, impossible, in ways that couldn't necessarily be traced to anything I was or wasn't doing.

This became crystal clear to me one July morning. June was 3, and I was chaperoning a group of park district campers on a field trip that included a 30-minute school bus ride. The bus wasn't particularly smelly, but it did include a radio and speakers, which were controlled by the 20-something driver.

My visions of leading the group in a rousing rendition of "Wheels on the Bus" faded quickly when the driver fired up Beyonce. The kids — all of them, including June — squealed with delight and sang along, word for word, to "Single Ladies."

Few things shake you out of your parenting stupor like your 3-year-old singing about the wisdom of putting a ring on it. Turns out their camp counselors, also singing along, started most camp mornings with a Beyonce dance party.

I shrugged and joined in. I needed those counselors and that driver and those kids to remind me how much darn fun this parenting thing could be.

I also needed Barbara Park.

We started reading the "Junie B." books shortly after that summer. June was asking for longer stories. She loved them immediately. ("Junie B. Jones Loves Handsome Warren" was her favorite.)

And it's no wonder: Junie B. is messy and troublesome and funny and loud and ill-tempered and vulnerable and loving, just like a real kid.

"I don't have a problem being 6 years old in my head," Park once said in an interview at barnesandnoble.com. "It's almost embarrassing. … It's not a stretch."

Embarrassing, actually, is how far many of us distance ourselves from childhood. Particularly when we're parenting children. Park, whose books sold more than 55 million copies in North America alone, gave me and countless other grown-ups an easy path back.

We, and our kids, are forever indebted.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13