Junie B. Jones and Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

Rejection sensitive dysphoria is an unpleasant emotion which should be more widely known. Not many people know how it feels, and even fewer know what it’s called. But Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones is an excellent fictional example of a character who lives with these hard emotions.

Today I’ll take a close look at Junie B Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, the first in the Junie B series, first published 1992.

Junie B. Jones books are infamous for being some of the most highly challenged and banned in libraries across America because:

  • Junie B is considered a bad role model for children. She is self-centred, doesn’t do as she’s told and rather than learn to be a better person at the end of this particular story, she learns to join in with the exclusionary behaviour if she’s to get on in life, or first of all, on the bus.
  • The language used is deliberately incorrect, to mimic the voice of an almost six-year-old. Instead of using the proper word for something, Junie B will describe it in her own language. She also uses grammar in an original way. (I find Junie B. very fun to read aloud, even so.)

Her adverbs lack the suffix “ly”; subject and object pronouns give her problems, as do possessives; she usually isn’t able to conjugate irregular past tense verbs; and words like funnest and beautifuller are the mainstays of her vocabulary.

NYT

I have noticed a very similar discussion going on with the contemporary, super popular Dogman series by Dav Pilkey. A lot of adults don’t like the bad grammar, because they feel children learn literacy from these books, and if they read incorrectly spelt words, they’re going to subconsciously mimic the spelling.

I can’t cite linguistic research around this, but the conclusion feels intuitively wrong. If children were really that impressionable, puns would also be banned, for promoting the ‘incorrect’ reading of a word. Yet children’s literature is full of wordplay, and I’m yet to hear a gatekeeper complain about that.

As a character, Junie B. Jones is the daughter of Ramona Quimby, along with Judy Moody, Clementine (by Sara Pennypacker) and other highly spirited girls.

MY PERSONAL RESPONSE TO JUNIE B.

The Junie B. series are early readers, but have found an unlikely audience with older kids, as have the Dogman and Wimpy Kid books appeal across the spectrum of middle grade readers (helping to turn them into best sellers.) Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus is especially resonant with my ten year old daughter because on her very first day of kindergarten, she decided to get on a different bus to visit a boy’s house for a playdate, and the teacher didn’t realise she’d switched lines. It was a 39 degree (>102F) day here in Australia, and my five year old was lost in a dangerously hot world for over an hour. Though we got her back safe and sound (an hour and a half later!), that afternoon remains one of the most stressful parenting experiences I’ve had to date. I’ve since realised our daughter is the real world personification of Junie B. She even LOOKS a lot like Junie B., especially now she’s growing out her fringe and wears a headband. She even got glasses since.

Though the gatekeepers of children’s literature don’t like these highly imperfect fictional girls, Junie B. is a realistic child. Imperfect children do exist. Junie’s emotions are real emotions — her motivations are based on real anxieties and desires. If we keep books about imperfect kids out of real kids’ hands, we are diminishing the emotional scope for children. And the ‘bad’ emotions are the ones we need to see shared by others, to help us feel less alone. Not only that — uncomfortable emotions are the most interesting emotions. They make for great storytelling.

Seeing Junie B in my own child does affect my reading of Junie’s personality — she strikes me as ADHD phenotype, as all the most interesting fictional girls seem to be. All of these girls are descended from a much earlier ADHD phenotype girl — Anne Shirley. Put Anne Shirley in a 1992 American kindergarten and I’m pretty sure you get Junie B. Jones.

A further note on ADHD: These fictional girls would be hyperactive type. The inattentive type is more common in girls, but not as interesting on the page. ADHD is not a good name for what the condition really is. We focus on the ‘hyperactivity’ but there’s far more to being ADHD than most people know, including myself, before I realised I had given birth to one such creature. ADHD kids are inquisitive, notice small details, hyper focus on their interests for hours at a time (but fail to focus on things they find boring), and they have more trouble than most people controlling their emotions.

An emotion that many ‘neurotypical’ people (I’m not sure there’s any such thing as neurotypical) have trouble understanding — rejection sensitive dysphoria. That is, the feeling that you don’t measure up and that everybody hates you deep down. When I say that Junie B. and her fictional ilk seem to be the ADHD phenotype, authors use the most fun parts of ADHD in their middle grade fiction. The less fun parts are not well-explored in children’s literature, and I believe there is room for that still.

Then again, Barbara Park does understand this phenotype really well. Partly because I read Junie B. through the ADHD lens, I code Junie B. as a hugely unreliable narrator. In Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, Junie B. feels she is rejected as soon as she sits down. She is indeed rejected by the girl with the white handbag, but then she extends that out and spots kids as ‘meanies’, but for all we know, they’re doing nothing to give her that impression. She simply imagines they’ll be mean to her. Her irrepressible curiosity and unhelpful imagination leads her to explore another boy’s school bag, but when he shifts seats, she sees that as a rejection of her. He is therefore set up as her long term opponent. This personality trait is set up for laughs as part of the long-running character humour, but a more accurate reading of Junie’s personality does require a reader old enough to code Junie B. as an unreliable narrator. Younger readers — readers who are themselves in kindergarten — are likely to understand Junie’s experiences as the ‘truth’ of the situation.

POLITICAL PROBLEMS WITH JUNIE B.

I have my own political issues with the Junie B. Jones series, completely unrelated to the ‘poor role mode’ and ‘bad language’ arguments.

It all started with Anne of Green Gables (and probably even earlier), but I have grown tired of the opponent web in these middle grade books about highly spirited girls. Almost always, without fail, the opponent is a ‘girly-girl’. I’ve written much more extensively about that phenomenon here, and argue that there are real world consequences for such stories. I stop short at saying such books should be banned however; I would simply like to see a wider variety of character webs in middle grade fiction.

Barbara Park was a white woman, and most people who work in publishing are also white. Turkeys We Have Loved and Eaten is notorious among Native American peoples for its poor portrayal of Native American culture. (I haven’t read it myself.) The #OwnVoices movement is going some way toward making this situation better. Let’s hope stories such as that would fail to get through all the checks and balances in 2018.

STORY STRUCTURE OF JUNIE B. JONES

While I’m here, I’ll take a good look at the structure of this book. (This is mainly for writers.) Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus is 6570 words and can be read by a proficient reader in about an hour. For a ten year old, it’s a bedtime read.

WEAKNESS/NEED

I consider Junie B.’s rejection sensitive dysphoria her biggest weakness, but I don’t believe this is the child reader’s interpretation.

Junie B., like all the other little kids out there, have one overarching weakness: They have to do what adults tell them to do, even if that thing is big and scary and terrible. An adult might choose not to get on the bus. Indeed, many adults get also hate buses, but they get to drive their own cars. But kids are basically prisoners. All kids can identify with that.

DESIRE

Junie is driven by the desire not to do something (ride the school bus) which, in narrative terms, works equally well as a strong desire to do something. Her morning bus experience wasn’t great, but when a girl in her class mentions that you get milk poured over your head on the afternoon school buses, Junie understands that to mean ‘everyone, all the time’, and now she is highly motivated to avoid the bus home.

OPPONENT

Junie sees everyone as her opponent, even though she lives in a very cosy world and is completely looked after.

Her mother is her first opponent, for making her do something she doesn’t want to do.

Next, every single one of the kids at school are potential opponents. She initially thinks maybe she can be friends with the girl on the bus, but when that doesn’t pan out, she expands her generally negative feeling out and by the end of the day, everyone is an opponent.

Although Junie B. pits everyone against her, Barbara Park includes in every book a ‘cutaway shot’ to a smiling, benevolent adult, to show that the adults are really on Junie’s side, that they find her funny and adorable. I find this cloying when I read a lot of Junie B. books back-to-back — it’s a consistent feature of this series. But at the same time, it’s necessary, because without the adults on her side, Junie B. really has no one. (Mostly of her own doing.)

PLAN

We don’t see Junie’s plan until she does it, which is pretty much how Junie herself works. I’m sure she didn’t plan to hide at home time, but she thought of it, saw an opportunity and did it.

Now the story enters carnivalesque mode, in which Junie enjoys the fun of being at school all alone. She gets into the teacher’s desk, pretends to be the teacher, sniffs out some clay, gets into band-aids in the nurse’s office, and wears her jumper in a form of dress-up play.

BATTLE

The Battle scene begins in the nurse’s room, where Junie B. is surrounded by the accoutrements of injury and death, in the most cosy way possible.

The big battle scene itself (the climax) is on the childhood equivalent of a Thelma and Louise film, with emergency services all turning up for Junie’s ’emergency’.

We don’t see her parents’ side, because that would not be fun at all. I’m sure they were worried out of their minds. (We don’t hear about the AMBER alert that went out.)

SELF-REVELATION

Although Junie B. is irreverent and although this series is not exactly famous for its didacticism, the lecture she gets first from the police officer, next from her mother in the car is the part where Junie (and the reader) learn that running off as she likes is not okay.

But Junie has her own self-revelation, which almost cancels out the ‘good message’ dished out by the parents. She realises she can cope with riding the school bus if she behaves how the other kids behave. She will find herself her own bus buddy, and use her own purse to reserve their seat.

Of course, adults like to think that the kid world is far more inclusive than that. We like to think that children can sit where they like on the bus, that there is no meaningful pecking order, that our child would be receptive to another child expressing interest in an adjacent seat. But there is always a huge disconnect between The Rules and The Reality of childhood. A great number of middle grade authors fail to get a handle on the reality of childhood tribalism, and instead stick to a kind of utopia, or more likely, they go some way towards addressing bullying culture, but present a black and white dichotomy of ‘goodies’ and ‘bullies’, without depicting the huge in-between that is most of us — joining in with the system as best we can.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Junie B. is now happy to ride the bus to and from school. We know her adventures at school will continue.