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WHY I LOVE JUNIE B. JONES (and Writing Plays for Young Audiences)

Based on the best-selling book series by Barbara Park,  Junie B. Jones is Not a Crook is a hilarious and heartfelt new play about that old adage: “Finders keepers, losers weepers.” In this guest blog post, playwright Allison Gregory explores the long-lasting appeal of Junie B. and why stories for young audiences are so important.

Junie B. Jones Is Not a Crook1.) She isn’t afraid to look bad.

Junie B. says what’s on her mind, tries things that she will fail at, and doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about how she comes off. She is blatantly, boldly flawed. I wish I were half as awesome as her.

2.) She speaks like children think.

Barbara Park, the late author, took a lot of flack for creating such a (to my mind) real character. I know parents who actually refused to let their children read the books; they feared their progeny would pick up Junie B.’s incorrect use of words and forever be saddled with a language deficit. What?! The way I see it? Junie B. is an expressionist: she seeks to present the world from her own, subjective perspective—that of an outgoing, curious, confident 6/7 -year-old. Her distortion of words for emotional, intellectual, or utilitarian purposes might be considered artistic if she were an adult artist. At the very least, they are entertaining malapropisms which generally convey meaning more accurately than standard “acceptable” language.

3.) She made my daughter laugh harder than I ever heard before.

This was no small feat. Every parent knows the downside of reading to your child: once you find a book they love they will want to hear it ad nauseam. It is soul crushing; you will come to dread the nightly ritual, at least the part where you have to read what has become a mind-numbingly boring book for the eight hundredth time. That never happened with the Junie B. books, and believe me, we read them at least eight hundred time. Each. And there are, like, twenty-eight books in the series! That’s, oh you do the math, that’s a lot. Somehow—not somehow, but through Barbara Park’s gifts and skill as a writer, the stories were always funny, gut-laugh-till-you-weep funny, every dang time. I still laugh at them, because they are still funny, twenty-plus years after the writing.

Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!4.) Junie B. stories make really great plays.

When I’m looking for a children’s book to adapt, I am most intrigued by stories that offer an inner dilemma with an outer obstacle. In other words, a moral quandary that will affect an action taken (or denied). In Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!, there was a very clear and relatable, situation: Junie had unwittingly selected her nemesis May’s name for the classroom’s Secret Santa exchange—at a time when Tattletale May was being particularly unpleasant and annoying to Junie B. Add to that the fact that Junie B. didn’t even have enough cash to buy her family their gifts and the Squeeze-A-Burp she so desperately needed to have; what’s a first grader supposed to do, I ask you? Read the play, silly. With Junie B. Is not A Crook, our hero is similarly painted into a corner of her own making. She finds something at school that has value and obviously belongs to one of her schoolmates—but they were careless so it’s their fault for losing it and she should be able to keep it, right? Right???

5.) The stories are honest; the characters are real.

One reason I return to this series—and will continue to do so until someone arrests me, is that I trust these stories. The books are genuine, there is a singular truthfulness to each narrative that, no matter how hair-brained Junie B.’s antics, they never become ‘silly’. Funny, yes. Rash, wrong-headed, thoughtless, yes. Silly, never. However flawed her thinking there is always a compelling reason for Junie B. to do what she does, and there is invariably an unintended consequence that requires her to respond. Her actions cost her something; in that sense these stories feel very real to me. Yet, and this impresses me to no end, however dire the situation, however deeply she’s dug that hole, Junie B. manages to call up some unexpected well of goodness within, and disaster is mostly averted, the dilemma is resolved. That is what’s so engaging and joyful about these stories and Junie B. herself: her scrappy resourcefulness, her unbridled sense of right and wrong, her bull-in-a-china-shop zest and imagination. Barbara Park got Junie B. so right because, well, she was Junie B. And luckily, I get to keep telling her stories.

 

Allison Gregory‘s plays have been produced all over the country, and she has received commissions, grants, and development from Oregon Shakespeare Festival, South Coast Repertory, The Kennedy Center, Indiana Repertory Theatre, the Skirball-Kenis Foundation, ACT Theatre, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle’s Arts and Cultural Affairs, LATC, The New Harmony Project, Northwest Playwright’s Alliance, Amphibian Stage Productions, and Austin Scriptworks. Her work has been the recipient of the Julie Harris Playwriting Award and South Coast Repertory’s Playwright’s Award (Forcing Hyacinths); Garland and Dramalogue Awards (Fall Off Night, Breathing Room, L.A.); Seattle Times Best New Play Award (Burning Bridget Cleary, Peter and the Wolf); and Carbonell nominations (uncertain terms), as well as finalists for the O’Neill, Bay Area Playwright’s Festival, Great Plains, and American Blues Blue Ink Award. Her play Not Medea recently received a National New Play Network (NNPN) Rolling World Premiere at B Street Theatre, Contemporary American Theatre Festival, and Perseverance Theatre. Motherland was recently featured in Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s Playfest reading series, in NNPN’s 2016 Showcase, and will receive a workshop production at Theatre Lab at FAU in January 2017. Currently she is working on Wild Horses, a one-woman stampede, and Darling Boud, a play of letters about the infamous Mitford sisters. Allison also writes for young audiences; plays include Go Dog. Go!, adapted from the P. D. Eastman book, co-written with Steven Dietz; Even Steven Goes to War (“Zoni” Best New Script Award, AATE and UPRP awards, Kennedy Center New Visions / New Voices selection); Peter and the Wolf (National tour); and Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! (over 200 professional productions). Her play Ronia: the Robber’s Daughter, adapted from Astrid Lindgren’s story, premiered at Teatr Pinokio in Poland this year, and Junie B. Jones is Not A Crook, adapted from the beloved book series by Barbara Park, premiered fall 2016 at Childsplay. Read Full Bio.

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