Barbara Park was best-known as the creator and author of the New York Times bestselling Junie B. Jones series, the stories of an outrageously funny kindergartener who has kept kids (and their grownups) laughing—and reading—for over two decades. Published by Random House Books for Young Readers, the series has sold over 60 million copies in North America alone, has been translated into multiple languages and is a beloved and time-honored staple in elementary school classrooms around the world.
The series was consistently a #1 New York Times bestseller, spending over 180 weeks on the list, and Barbara and her books were profiled in such national outlets as Time, Newsweek, USA Today, The New York Times, and Today.
Park died on Friday, November 15, 2013 after fighting ovarian cancer heroically for seven and a half years.
Barbara Park arrived at the writing profession through an indirect route. Before becoming a bestselling and beloved children’s author, she originally intended to teach high school history and political science. She got her secondary education degree but quickly realized that her calling was to be a writer. She said, "My senior year of high school, I was voted 'Wittiest.' So several years later, I decided to try my hand at writing humor and see if I could be witty enough to make some money."
After several rejections, Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers acquired her first manuscript, Operation: Dump the Chump and two others. Don’t Make Me Smile was published first in 1981, followed by Operation: Dump the Chump (1982) and Skinnybones (1982).
She went on to write over fifty books, from the picture book Ma! There’s Nothing to Do Here!, a love letter to her grandson, to middle grade novels such as Skinnybones, The Kid in the Red Jacket, Mick Harte Was Here, and The Graduation of Jake Moon. Barbara won more than forty children’s book awards, including several Children’s Choice Awards.
On writing books for kids, Barbara once said: "There are those who believe that the value of a children’s book can be measured only in terms of the moral lessons it tries to impose or the perfect role models it offers. Personally, I happen to think that a book is of extraordinary value if it gives the reader nothing more than a smile or two. In fact, I happen to think that’s huge."
Every bit as funny and as outrageous as her best-known character, Barbara shared a special connection with Junie B. Jones. She once said of the series, "I've never been sure whether Junie B.'s fans love her in spite of her imperfections . . . or because of them. But either way, she's gone out into the world and made more friends than I ever dreamed possible."
Barbara Park was born in Mount Holly, New Jersey, on April 21, 1947, and spent most of her adult life in Arizona. There she, with her husband, Richard, raised her two sons and spent time with her two young grandsons.
Throughout her life, Barbara was passionate about supporting many causes. She was a “wish” for several children participating in the Make-a-Wish Foundation and would dedicate her upcoming books to kids whose dying wish was to meet her. Barbara also founded her own charitable organization with her husband, Richard—Sisters in Survival (“SIS”), a nonprofit organization dedicated to offering financial assistance to ovarian cancer patients. SIS is an all-volunteer organization, and all donations go directly to women struggling with ovarian cancer. Barbara’s family will continue to run SIS. (www.sistersinsurvival.org)
In her lifetime, Barbara always answered questions from kids – here are some of our favorites. Click on an arrow to see her answers to real kids’ questions!
Did you ever have a baby brother or sister? If so, were you excited and did you want it to be a boy or a girl?
Since my brother Brooke is two years older than I am, I was the baby of the family.
Were you a bookworm when you were a child?
I liked to read. But no, I wouldn’t describe myself as a bookworm.
Which of your books do you like the best?
After I wrote Mick Harte Was Here, I knew that this book would always have a special place in my heart. The story is fictional, but I would have loved to have known both Mick and his sister, Phoebe. Also, the bike helmet issue discussed in that book is extraordinarily important to me. For similar reasons, I also enjoyed the challenge of writing The Graduation of Jake Moon. As I developed Jake’s relationship with his grandfather, I found myself dealing with intense emotions that I could never have predicted.
Do you have a hero?
To me, heroes are everyday people who reach out to others in extraordinary ways with no expectation of payback or recognition. I am in awe of people like that.
Who is your favorite character?
I don’t have a single favorite character, but Mick and Phoebe Harte, and Jake and Skelly Moon, have been the characters that have been most meaningful to me. The characters I’ve had the most fun with include: Molly Vera Thompson (in The Kid in the Red Jacket), Thomas Russo (in My Mother Got Married and Other Disasters), and (of course!) Junie B. Jones. Actually, Junie B. was based on Thomas and Molly from those earlier two novels.
What kind of computer do you use?
I’ve got both kinds… a Mac and a netbook. How fair is that?
Do you finish every book you start to read? Or—if you don’t like a book— do you stop in the middle?
I used to have a policy that, no matter what, I would finish reading every book I started. Recently, I have readjusted my position on this issue. These days, I give a book about 100 pages to catch my interest. If I don’t like it by then, I happily put it back on the shelf, and move on. (Word of warning: Do not do this with school assignments… and I MEAN it!)
What do you like doing when you are not writing?
I like to eat frozen M&M’s.
When is your birthday?
April 21st, 1812. On the 20th anniversary of the Junie B. series I will be 200 years old. I don’t want to brag, but I think I’ve held up well.
What is your favorite thing to do after completing one of the Junie B. Jones books as a reward for yourself?
Okay… now I’m back to eating the frozen M&M’s answer.
Do you write any books for adults?
Nope. I’m not actually sure I’m grownup enough for grownup books.
You’re my favorite author! Are Skinnybones and Almost Starring Skinnybones the only two books in the Skinnybones series?
Yes, Skinnybones and the sequel are the only two books about Alex Frankovitch. But I have to say, I really had a good time writing those stories.
Do you enjoy writing Junie B. Jones books more than other books you write?
Writing about Junie B. is a lot of fun, but I know her so well now, it’s like writing about an old friend. The truth is, I usually end up liking almost all the characters in my books. So a lot of my characters feel just as special to me as Junie B. Jones does.
Does it take patience to write a book?
Sure. But, then again, I can’t really think of a job that doesn’t take patience.
Do you always keep a notebook in case a good idea pops into your head and you don’t want to forget it?
I don’t keep a notebook, but I do keep a paper and pencil on my nightstand in case I get an idea in the middle of the night.
What would you say if someone asked you, “How can I become an author?”
I would say, 1) read, read, read, read; 2) write, write, write, write; 3) rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite; 4) and love what you’re doing.
Do you like being an author, and who influences your writing?
Like any job, being an author has its frustrations, but I definitely love what I do. As far as “influences,” the people who help make my life so happy (family and special friends) have the most effect on my writing.
How do you feel after reading one of your own books?
The truth is—because I read my stories so many times while I’m working on them—I usually don’t read them again for a while. Sometimes, by the time I do, I’ve forgotten things I’ve written. If I find myself smiling, that’s a good feeling.
You make kids want to read. How does that make you feel?
It makes me smile.
I just wanted to tell you that you inspired me to write books. How does it feel to inspire people?
That’s simply one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received.
Did you always want to be an author?
Being a writer was never even on my radar screen. As a kid, I wanted to be on The Mickey Mouse Club, but apparently that required some kind of talent. In college, I planned to teach high school history and political science. I was hoping I could make history seem a little funnier. :o)
Did your two sons like the fact that you write books or did they not care?
Even when my sons were young, being an author never made me much of a celebrity around here. It’s always just been my job.
What books did you read as a child?
Do comic books count? If so, hurray for the Archie comic books. And I loved Richie Rich!
What is your favorite book that you have read?
I have lots of favorites, but To Kill A Mockingbird has always been one of my top adult favorites.
When did you first start writing?
Whenever I’m asked this question, I’m always tempted to fib a little. “Are you kidding?” I want to say. “Why I’ve been writing stories since the first day I held a pencil.”
The truth is, though, that as a kid I had absolutely no interest in writing at all. In fact, for me, a writing assignment was more upsetting than finding out my mother was cooking liver and onions for dinner.
Anyway, I’m happy to report that in high school, I developed a love for reading that continues to this day. And, around that same time, I had also begun to find myself quite amusing (though certainly not everyone agreed with me on that one). But I actually think it was a combination of those two things, that made me eventually try to write a “funny” book of my own.
The first children’s novel I wrote was called Operation: Dump the Chump. I still remember sending it to New York and hoping that whoever read it would be in a really good mood and decide to give me a chance. I got lucky. After Dump the Chump was rejected by three different publishers, the fourth one (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.) said, “Yes!” I love those people!
How old were you when you wrote your first book?
I was a “late bloomer” in this area. I didn’t start writing children’s books until I had children of my own.
Have you ever been a classroom teacher? You really hit the nail on the head in classroom situations.
I studied to be a high school history teacher and did my student teaching in the seventh grade. (That’s one tough job, I tell you. I’m really not sure I would have lasted.)
Where did you go to high school?
I went to Rancocas Valley Regional High School (RVRHS) in Mount Holly, New Jersey. I loved that high school.
Where do you get your ideas?
Honestly, my life isn’t exciting enough to write about things that have actually happened to me, so I’m forced to make my stories up from scratch. Usually, I start out with a vague story line and a general idea of the characters. Then, once I begin to write, the story starts to flow. If all goes well, it will flow in all sorts of directions that I never could have predicted.
What is it like to be an author?
For me, the best part of being an author is that I get to go to work in my pajamas. Other than that, my life is very normal.
Are all your friends authors or are they regular friends too?
I don’t hang out with other authors. In my everyday, normal life, all my best friends are everyday, normal people… just like me.
How did you learn how little kids’ minds operate?
Believe it or not, I’ve actually been a little kid myself! :o)
Is it hard trying to think like a kindergartner?
I have absolutely no trouble thinking like a five-year-old. My family and friends will confirm this.
Since you’re an adult, how can you write about kids’ feelings and make them seem so real?
I don’t think that I’ve ever met a “grownup” who is as mature on the inside as he or she appears to be on the outside. Learning to behave like an adult makes the world a more socialized place. But even if we don’t admit it, sometimes adults still feel nervous, and scared, and embarrassed, and even just plain silly. Personally, just because I don’t lean over and tickle the person next to me at a business meeting, doesn’t mean that I never have the urge. ;o)
Are you funny in real life, like you are when you are writing Junie B.?
I’m not sure my family thinks I’m as funny as I do. But I’m pretty sure they're wrong.
Do you sometimes wish you were still a kid?
Although being a kid was fun, I find that being an immature adult is equally amusing.
How many books have you written?
When you write a series, it’s hard to keep up with the numbers. But the last time I checked, I’d written two picture books, 13 middle-grade novels, and over 30 Junie B. Jones stories.
How did you come up with the name Junie B. Jones?
If I remember correctly, I started scribbling a bunch of first and last names down on a scrap of paper trying to find a combination that had the right ring to it. And after a few days, I looked down at my notes, and there was Junie B. Jones.
How did you decide that Junie B.’s middle name would be Beatrice?
I’m not really sure. I think I just ran a bunch of “B” names through my head and came up with Beatrice. (I happen to love the name, by the way.)
What is your middle name?
Barbara Lynne Park. (Before I was married, I was Barbara Lynne Tidswell. For years, my initials were B.L.T.… like the sandwich.)
Do you draw the pictures in your books?
Now that would be a disaster. Denise Brunkus is the talented artist that brings such fun to the Junie B. illustrations.
Did Denise Brunkus draw Junie B. the way you imagined she would look?
The very first illustrations I saw of Junie B. Jones (in Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus) brought instant smiles. From the very beginning, I love the sense of fun Denise brings to her artwork.
Why aren’t the pictures in color?
In picture books, illustrations are an integral part of the book. But, in the Junie B. series, Denise Brunkus’s black-and-white illustrations were intended to add a spark of humor and fun to each chapter. I’m thrilled to say that, in 2012, Random House is publishing a special 20th anniversary edition of Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus that Denise is doing in full color! I can’t wait to see it!
Have you ever illustrated?
I’ve never illustrated a children’s book like a real “grownup” artist. But (ahem) “Junie B.” illustrated her Essential Survival Guide to School. So I guess you could say I was behind the doodles on that one.
Is it hard to think of what to name your books? Why?
Sometimes titles are very hard to come up with. The problem is that titles have to be short, and yet they have to tell you a little bit about the story. Hopefully, they also will be clever or funny. That can be a pretty tall order.
Do you talk like Junie B.?
Oh, dear. I hope not. I’m sure I still make grammatical mistakes. But, unlike Junie B., I’m not six anymore. I’ve had a lifetime to learn the rules of English.
Have you ever thought about making a movie of Junie B.?
For some reason, I’ve never been particularly interested in making a Junie B. movie. Currently, there are two Junie B. plays that appear in various children’s theaters throughout the country. And—during the summer—Junie B. travels all over in her Stupid Smelly Bus Tour. But, as far as doing a feature film, Junie B. has been pretty successful just living in the reader’s imagination. So I’m happy with that.
Did you ever hide in a hamper when you were a kid? If not, what special hiding place did you have?
When my brother and I used to play hide-and-seek in the house, the hamper was always the first place I hid. Unfortunately, it was also always the first place my brother looked.
Did you ever go to the principal?
Yes. And, sadly, it wasn’t a social call.
Who were you most like when you were a kid: Junie B., Grace, or Lucille?
Well, considering I went to visit “Principal,” I was definitely more of a Junie B.
When you were a kid did you know what goals you would set?
As a kid, my goals weren’t all that complicated. Mostly they were things like not falling off my bike and finding a better hiding place than the hamper.
How many years have you been writing Junie B. Jones books?
The first book of the Junie B. Jones series was published in 1992, so 2012 is the 20th anniversary of the series!
What is the hardest part of writing Junie B. books?
After so many years of writing about her, the hardest part is trying to come up with new story ideas. I also have to work very hard to make sure Junie B. and her friends don't repeat the same jokes or conversations.
Will you ever tell us what the real name of Mrs. is?
If I ever find out, you’ll be the first to know.
How did Junie B.’s parents meet?
Sorry, but this is one of those Junie B. questions that I’ve never actually thought about. For this answer, your guess is as good a mine.
When Junie B. grows up, will she marry Meanie Jim?
I don’t really think about Junie B. ever being a grownup. But I’m not sure her best choice would be to marry someone who’s known as “Meanie.”
Will Junie B. ever get a sister?
Very unlikely. She’s having enough trouble getting used to Ollie.
Did Tickle’s hair ever grow back after Junie B. cut it in Junie B. Jones Is a Beauty Shop Guy?
I know this might seem odd, but I don’t actually know Tickle. Still, I feel sure that his fur has made a complete recovery by now.
What did Junie B. do with Fish Stick after Pet Day?
I don’t even want to consider the possibilities here.
Did you go to the farm to write Junie B. Jones Has a Peep in Her Pocket?
No, I didn’t go to a farm to write that book. But in the small town where I grew up, there were lots of farms. So I’m very familiar with all the lovely sights and sounds and smells of farm life.
Does Junie B. like cats?
I don’t really know. Except for ponies—her main problem seems to be animals with beaks.
Were you ever afraid of roosters like Junie B. was in Junie B. Jones Has a Peep in Her Pocket?
Even now, I don’t think you’d catch me hanging out with a lot of roosters.
Our class is curious about baby Ollie's name. Is it pronounced with a long o or a short o?
Ollie rhymes with jolly.
Will Junie B. be a smart woman when she grows up or funny like she is now?
Well, there’s no reason we have to choose one over the other, right? Junie B. will be a smart, funny woman.
Do you eat sugar cereal for breakfast?
I usually eat Wheaties. (Okay, fine… with a little sugar.)
How do you come up with such funny ideas with Junie B. Jones?
To be honest, there are times that funny new ideas are a lot of work. But sometimes, creating silly conversations for Junie B. and her friends actually makes me laugh out loud. So, what a happy reason to keep writing!
Have you ever written a story about yourself?
Nope, no stories about myself. I’m totally boring.
Do you write other stories?
The truth is, I’ve been writing books for kids since 1981. Some of my other titles include, Skinnybones, My Mother Got Married and Other Disasters, Mick Harte Was Here, and The Kid in the Red Jacket. (Actually, Junie B. Jones is based on a character named Molly Vera Thompson from The Kid in the Red Jacket! I loved writing about Molly. She's almost as funny as Junie B.)
How do you write funny books like the Junie B. Jones series and then go to sad books like Mick Harte Was Here?
Writing a series like Junie B. Jones can be fun. But as a writer, I think it’s important to challenge myself in other areas. Mick Harte Was Here was a very difficult book to write. But of all my novels, I think I’m most proud of that one.
I just finished Mick Harte Was Here. I was wondering if you knew any one who died in a bike crash?
Mick Harte Was Here was inspired by a bike accident that happened in my neighborhood several years ago. Although I did not know the child who died (nor do I know his family), the accident made a big impact on me emotionally. I’m glad I finally made the decision to create the characters of Mick Harte and his family so that more kids can understand (as you do) the critical importance of wearing a bike helmet.
How long does it take you to write a book?
The time it takes to finish a book depends on the kind of story I’m writing and how ambitious (or, okay, fine… lazy) I’m feeling. The first Junie B. Jones book took a couple of months. And that was quite “speedy” of me. But after that, Denise still needed to add the illustrations. So even with a Junie B. book, it’s always well over a year before it’s finally ready for the bookstores. As far as my middle-grade novels, Mick Harte Was Here took almost two years to write. Mick Harte is the story of a young boy’s death as told by his sister. Even though it’s a relatively short book, it took a long time for me to achieve the right balance between the humor and the sadness. For similar reasons, my novel The Graduation of Jake Moon was equally challenging. It’s a story about a boy and his grandfather, who has developed Alzheimer’s disease. I came to love both of these characters, and I wanted to do them justice, so I took it slowly.
Where do you get your inspiration?
This may sound strange, but I don't normally write out of inspiration. I like to write. But I view writing as a job, rather than anything too inspirational.
Do you always plan what you are going to write about? Or do you write off the top of your head?
I always start out with an outline of the story in my head. But, since the outline is not very detailed, the story often goes in all sorts of directions I couldn’t have planned.
How come there are always problems in your books?
If a character isn’t presented with a challenge or problem in a story, I’m honestly not sure what I’d write about. In real life, of course, we all love it when a day is blissfully happy. But to me, writing (or reading) a story where nothing ever goes wrong in a character's life, sounds like a bit of a snoozer.
Have you ever been divorced or remarried, like the mother in My Mother Got Married (and Other Disasters)?
I feel fortunate that I’ve never had to go through either one of these situations in real life. But, through friends, I have learned how upsetting they can be for everyone involved. I’ve also learned that after the dust finally settles, eventually things can start to look brighter and life will go on.
Have you written any books about stepfamilies?
Yes. One of my middle-grade novels, Don't Make Me Smile, deals with a boy named Charlie whose parents are going through a divorce. The sequel to that book is called My Mother Got Married and Other Disasters. In the sequel, Charlie’s mother remarries and Charlie adjusts to living with a stepfather, a stepsister, and a little stepbrother. All very big “steps.”