Barbara Park graduated from the University of Alabama armed with a degree in teaching, but her first classroom of seventh graders drove her right out of the profession! During the period of self-reflection that followed, she analyzed her strengths and thought she could capitalize on her sense of humor. “I’ve always been funny,” says Park. “I received the Wittiest Award in high school.” She pauses. “It wasn’t much, but it was all I had!” Park experimented with several different forms of humor from Hallmark greeting cards to Sunday supplement stories in her local newspaper. When her son brought home Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume she thought children’s literature might be the fit for her.
“I had the picture-perfect childhood,” Park says. A two-week vacation at the beach was an established family tradition. “I think about my childhood and I picture us all there under an umbrella on the ocean.” She didn’t have a particular driving passion as a child and never imagined becoming a writer; she lived day-to-day without focusing on what she wanted to be when she grew up. Comic books were her literature of choice until high school when the reading bug bit her. “But I always had a sense (and I guess this is from my parents) that whatever I wanted to do I would be able to do it,” says Park.
After ten middle-grade novels and 25 Junie B. Jones titles, Park says, “I don’t think I’m a terribly imaginative writer or storyteller. I think of an imaginative writer or storyteller as someone who could spin a story around a campfire. I could not tell you a story around a campfire to save my life.” In Park’s opinion, The Lorax by Dr. Seuss is one of the most perfect books ever written. “His simplicity is so incredibly hard,” says Park and she envies the way in which he can whimsically tell his story without losing sight of his message.
Humor and clever dialogue are Park’s favorite parts of writing. “I work on the dialogue more than anything,” she says. Many of her stories simply come from brainstorming—although “simply” may be an understatement. There is usually a lot of hair-pulling according to Park.
Other times, an event sets off a chain of ideas. A bike accident at the end of Park’s street sparked the idea for Mick Harte was Here (Random House, 1996). Although Park did not know the victim of the real-life accident, she couldn’t stop thinking about how she would cope with the sadness and the loss as a parent. Park created Phoebe Harte, Mick’s sister, to tell readers the story of her brother’s bike accident. “The emotional depth and the sadness tested me,” says Park.
The main characters in Park’s middle-grade novels are between the ages of eight and ten years old. They are cool, edgy and sophisticated. Molly Vera Thompson from The Kid in the Red Jacket (Random House, 1988) was Park’s first foray into the world of a younger child. Molly spoke to Park in her own voice and she was funny!
Some time later, Random House asked Park to write four books in a brand new series for early readers. During one of her many walks mulling over the challenge, Park noticed a kindergartener walking home from his first day of school on a busy street all by himself. Concerned, she asked him if everything was all right. He said he’d missed his bus. Park contacted the school and discovered the boy actually had ignored his bus. Ideas began flowing. Park called on her past experience with Molly Vera Thompson to create a five-year old in kindergarten. She used the little boy’s fear of the bus as a catalyst for the story and called it Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus (Random House, 1992).
According to Park, part of Junie B.’s appeal is that she can say and do anything because she’s not yet cool. At the start of the Junie B. series, Park thought her biggest challenge would be adapting her dry wit, characteristic of her novels for older readers, to the kindergarten set. But her concerns proved groundless. “I didn’t have a hard time becoming five,” she quips.
Park is uncomfortable with the limelight of becoming a well-loved children’s author. “Writing is my job,” she says. “I’m not a celebrity. I approach writing no differently than a teacher or a fireman [would approach their jobs]. I’m not in the star category.” Perhaps it’s Phoebe Harte and Molly Vera Thompson and Junie B. Jones who are the stars. But behind each of these engaging characters is the talented Park who made them come to life.
Note: Barbara Park passed away on November 15, 2013 after a heroic battle with ovarian cancer. Her spirit lives on through her characters.