For Barbara Park, finding the voice of 5-year-old Junie B. Jones is easy. So easy, she says, that it’s actually kind of scary, and maybe not a talent to brag about. But Park, who’s lived in Arizona for more than 30 years, is an award-winning author with more than 50 titles currently in print. This month, Childsplay will present “Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!” adapted for the stage by playwright Allison Gregory.
Vicki: You studied to become a teacher. What prompted the shift to writing?
Barbara: I did my student teaching in the seventh grade. It wasn’t one of those warm fuzzy moments for me and I just sort of got the hint that I wasn’t going to be a good teacher and I started looking for something else to do. It’s really a difficult age. Seventh grade schoolteachers are my absolute heroes.
Vicki: How did you decide, then, to start writing books? Were you always interested in writing?
Barbara: I wasn’t one of those kids who liked to write stories—that was just like a chore for me. What I was…was funny. You know, sort of the class clown. I was the kid that went to the principal for talking in the first grade.
Vicki: I guess that’s the way a lot of stand-up comedians start, as the class clown.
Barbara: Yeah, so your choices are either to write funny or do stand-up and that was never going to happen. It was a really good time for children’s books. Judy Blume was very big. So I started to write funny, and I got lucky.
Vicki: What was the first thing you wrote that you were paid to do?
Barbara: The first thing that I ever got published was a Hallmark greeting card.
Barbara: Yes, I made $50. And I thought, “This is it. This is what I am going to do for a living.”
Vicki: What kind of card was it?
Barbara: It was one of those insulting birthday cards that said something like, “Isn’t it ridiculous the way some women react to aging?” Then there was a big list of wrinkle creams, facelifts, hair dyes—you know, this whole big list. Then it said, “There’s no doubt about it….” And when you opened it up, it said, “I really admire the way you just let yourself go.”
Vicki: Fifty bucks, huh?
Barbara: Yes, fifty bucks. It was the first one and the last one that I ever sold.
Vicki: When did your success with the Junie B. Jones series begin?
Barbara: I had this magic moment when my first book was going to be published that I think was in the early 1980s. I think my youngest was in second or third grade.
Vicki: You’ve raised two sons, Steven and David. Did you read to them on a regular basis as they grew?
Barbara: We did read to them when they were small. We read a lot of Dr. Seuss, lots of those “rhyme-y” kinds of things that I think are fun for both parents to read and kids to hear.
Vicki: What were some of the advantages and disadvantages of becoming a children’s book author when your children were young and at home?
Barbara: I cannot think of a disadvantage there. Except maybe that I had to “shush” them a lot. You know, “I’m working, keep the noise down.” Working in my office is what I always did. It wasn’t a big deal. I made lunches, sent them off and I got to go to work in my pajamas.
Vicki: Sounds nice! Did you ever give one of your stories a trial run by your boys before you sent them to the publisher?
Barbara: What I did do was sometimes run a few things by them that I thought, “Would kids say this? Is this an expression from my day?” I did that a lot but I don’t think that they read any of the books until they were in book form.
Vicki: “Junie B. Jones in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!” will be staged this fall for Childsplay. Will Junie B. act and sound the same as she does in the books you’ve written?
Barbara: Honestly, anyone who has ever worked with me will tell you that I’m a bit of a control freak. So, I usually don’t let anyone else write new dialogue for her. When a playwright is adapting a book for a play, we do have an agreement that most of the dialogue will come straight from the books. That’s basically just to keep her voice consistent. I’ve had three different playwrights do this and it’s just been a really good working relationship that we’ve had. I let them do all the work and then they just run it by me and say, “What do you think? Do you want to put this in ‘Junie-speak’ for us?”
Vicki: What’s the best thing about being Barbara Park?
Barbara: It’s my luck! I’ve had so many more career breaks than I could even imagine. I have this incredible husband and sons and daughter-in-law and grandsons. I’ve just been incredibly lucky. RAK