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To her fans, Junie B.'s the 'bestest'

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You must be doing something wrong when you have 28 million books in print, charm teachers and librarians and hook kids on reading, right?

Sure enough, Barbara Park's famously feisty and ungrammatical Junie B. Jones causes conniptions among a certain breed of vigilant parents and grannies -- the kind Roald Dahl used to skewer without mercy.

Their take-no-prisoners tone raises Park's hackles -- and hurts her feelings, too. "What I don't understand is the vitriol and just the nastiness," said the usually sunny author, apologetically venting her frustration during a recent cell-phone interview.

"You have no idea some of the letters I've gotten," she said. "The level of anger and meanness -- It's almost like you get to slap me around and not put a return address on it."

The charges against Park's beloved fictional character?

Talking and behaving like a 5-year-old -- which she is. Or was, until Parks promoted the perennial kindergartner to "Junie B., First Grader," as the series is now tagged.

See, Junie B. has a problem with grammar -- and has ever since Park launched the series in 1992 with "Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus." Sometimes Junie B. gets mixed up and says "bestest" and "shaked" and "rided" and "stoled."

Not only that, she yells, gets mad at kids who bug her, calls things "dumb" and has trouble staying in her seat. No wonder kids love her.

"She talks like a regular kid -- it's not all perfect. I used to sort of talk like her," says Greenwood Elementary fourth-grader Lauren Lancaster, who said the series is "fun and funny. I checked one out from the library yesterday."

The 25th Junie B. Jones title, which hit bookstores last Tuesday, is "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! (P.S. So Does May.)" (Random House, 118 pages, $11.95).

Park, who lives in Arizona, likens Junie B. to Beverly Cleary's Ramona Quimby in that "I think she has that same sense of getting into trouble. It's an innocent sense of trouble."

Not that you'd know it from the apocalyptic tone of some of her critics.

"This is the worst children's book I've ever come across," said one flaming critique posted at "Let your children read these 'Junnie (sic) B.' peices (sic) of [work] and then spend months unlearning the poor grammar it teaches."

And this: "Words fall short to describe this genre of writing -- not only is the language abysmal, but as a parent of young, impressionable children, I find it rather detrimental to their psyche and behaviour (sic). For our children's sake, do not endorse these books; rather boycott them entirely."

Wow -- could this be the same series Booklist calls "sassy, hilarious and insightful?" That School Library Journal praises as "an ideal read-aloud to first-graders" and an enjoyable bridge to chapter books?

"Junie B. is a very spontaneous, sort of talk-before-you-think little girl," Park said. "I don't think that's a sin! I don't think she's any more dangerous than the little 5-year-old next door, who also isn't speaking the queen's English."

Not to worry. Teachers, librarians and critics applaud Junie B. for her ability to get kids reading.

"Oh, my gosh, I can't keep them in! They're wonderful!" said Mary Thompson, librarian at Beacon Hill Elementary, who has never received any parent complaints about the series.

"What's so amazing about them," Thompson added, "is you first think they're primary-grade books, but kids of all ages love them. The fifth-graders will even go back and read them for fun."

Former children's bookstore owner Andy Pickard, now a teacher at Beacon Hill Elementary, acknowledged that some parents don't like Junie B.'s sassy behavior.

But he said, "Kids aren't going to act like Junie anymore than they're going to act like Captain Underpants or Tom Sawyer."

Now 58, Park was a respected writer for middle-grade readers when her editor suggested she try her hand at a four-book series for beginning readers -- the series that became the long-running Junie B. Jones.

Park's previous chapter books included "Skinnybones," "The Kid in the Red Jacket" and "Mick Harte Was Here," a cautionary story about a funny, likable boy who dies in a bike accident because he wasn't wearing a helmet.

"It's probably the only book that I deliberately have put a message in," she said.

Park, a new grandmother, will make her picture-book debut in May 2007 with "There's Nothing To Do Here." It grew from a baby-shower poem she wrote for her daughter-in-law about a bored baby-in-waiting. Another, as-yet untitled picture book is in the pipeline.

Of course, it will be hard to top Junie B. Jones, whose antics are an exaggerated reflection of Park's own childhood.

"I went to the principal's office in first grade for talking (in class)," Park said with a laugh. "A lot of my life my father was the president of the board of education, so that was a little iffy -- to take that note home."

While Junie B. has made progress in grammar and deportment, she will forever remain a lively, unself-conscious first-grader, said Park, who makes no promises about her character's longevity.

"I want to make sure she doesn't go the way of even good sitcoms," Park said, "where you run out of story lines that would occur naturally."

As for the flap over Junie B.'s lack of decorum, Greenwood Elementary librarian Ruthanne Rankin offers this reassurance:

"I have never seen anything negative about a child loving to read," she said. "Except maybe lack of sleep."

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