Talking to Barbara Park is a challenge, and it’s not because she’s a best-selling author with more defenses around her inner circle than an onion has layers. In fact, her life — split primarily between her home in Scottsdale and a favorite childhood vacation spot on Long Beach Island, N.J. — is pretty normal and entourage-free.
The hard part, when you’re talking to Park, is trying not to laugh. Because she’s laughing almost nonstop, and the tinkling timbre of her snickers, howls and chuckles is catching.
“I have two grandchildren now! I’m this GRANDmother, and I remember thinking as a kid, 'What must that be like, to be my grandmother? She’s so grown-up and grandmotherly.’ Now I’m here, and I’m like, 'What happened?’ I don’t feel any different!” the former class clown laughs over the phone from New Jersey.
Park’s humor is one of the most endearing characteristics of her books, a wide range of novels written for kids in kindergarten through middle school. Her characters are almost always likeable but imperfect underdogs who aren’t in control of their circumstances — or, for the youngest among them, their own behavior. One of those is irrepressible first-grader Junie B. Jones, whose 27-book series has sold 44 million books since it launched in 1992. The plucky tyke comes to town this weekend for two live-action shows for beginning readers. Park will sign books at both events, scheduled for Saturday in Tempe and Phoenix.
Here, the ebullient — and award-winning — writer chats about her career.
Q & A with Barbara Park
Q: Did you always want to be a writer?
A: My father was the president of the board of education in our little town. It was just kind of always assumed that I would go to school to be a teacher. I graduated high school in the ’60s, and it was a different time. You went to college to be a nurse or a teacher, and there wasn’t much deviation from that.
Q: What grade and subject did you teach?
A: I majored in history and political science, and then I did my student teaching as a senior in a seventh-grade classroom, and it drove me right out of the profession. It was like, “Oh, OK. THIS is what teaching’s like. Um, never mind.” (Laughs.)
Q: Why do you enjoy writing about children?
A: Really young children see things very clearly. There’s not a lot of gray area yet. I like the fact that little kids just blurt things out. They haven’t learned to reel themselves in. That’s the fun of writing about a really young kid. They don’t think: “If I say this, how’s it going to sound?” When I write for older kids, I like that they have started to be more clever. They can do that dry sense of humor and be sarcastic and do plays on words.
Q: One of your best-loved characters is Junie B. Jones, first grader. Are you itching to let her grow up?
A: No, I’m good to leave her where she is. I really wasn’t ever expecting to get her out of kindergarten. She was there for 10 years, and finally I moved her to first grade because a full school day provides more story lines.
Junie B. is very free. The fun comes from her honesty and naivete. As kids start to grow up, they start to get cooler. They start to hear society telling them what’s cool and what’s not and how they should act and what they should say. They’re less impetuous. They’re more cautious. Younger kids don’t filter themselves very well, and that provides a lot of the humor for Junie B. If she starts to grow, she’s going to change, or else just become totally obnoxious, and both of those are unacceptable to me. (Laughs.)
Q: But don’t Junie B.’s readers want her to grow along with them?
A: Oh, yes. (Laughs.) If they’re in second grade, they want her to be in second, and on and on. I’ve gotten letters from girls in high school going, “But I still can’t stop reading these”! (Laughs.) It’s like visiting a little sister at some point. You really want them to move on, to find something at their level that they love equally well.
But they can stay with her for a little longer than you think. Kids in kindergarten get her on their own level. At second and third grade, they start reading her to little brothers or sisters, and they get her in a different way, like, “Yeah, I remember when I used to be like that.”
Q: What’s next for Junie B.?
A: We’re working on a book now called “Junie B.’s Essential Survival Guide to School.” The premise is that she’s just gotten your basic marbled composition notebook, and she’s filled it with tips and hints that she’s learned that can help you when you go to school. In her mind, in her crazy way (laughs), these are things kids need to know.
The Junie B. Jones Stupid Smelly Bus Tour
What: Feisty first-grader Junie B. Jones rolls into town on a pink school bus for this live-action performance from one of America’s most beloved children’s book characters. The bespectacled redhead will open her “Big Pink Trunk of Junk” for a show-and-tell of recognizable items from the series and give away prizes. Author Barbara Park will also be there, signing one book per person. Junie B. will stamp up to five copies of any Park title. Recommended for children age 5 and older.
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Marcos de Niza High School cafeteria, 6000 S. Lakeshore Drive, Tempe
Cost: Tickets are $5 when you purchase one copy of any “Junie B. Jones” book at Changing Hands Bookstore, 6428 S. McClintock Drive, Tempe. Each ticket admits two people; kids age 2 and younger are free.
Information: (480) 730-0205 or www.changinghands.com
Note: The Junie B. Jones Stupid Smelly Bus Tour will host the same show 9:30 a.m. Saturday at Mountain Sky Middle School, 16225 N. Seventh Ave., Phoenix. Junie B. will stamp one book per child; Park will sign one book purchased at the event per customer. Free and open to the public. Information: (602) 863-6000 or www.gbsbooks.com