“My name is Junie B. Jones. The B stands for Beatrice. Except I don’t like Beatrice. I just like B, and that’s all.”
The above is the opening paragraph of Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly School Bus. It’s the first in a series of books that follow Junie B., a kindergartener and then first-grader with her own strong ideas about the world. The author, Barbara Park, doesn’t simply allude to her heroine’s assertiveness, she spells it out for her young readers: From those very first lines, Junie B. has no qualms about letting others know what she thinks.
Aside from her name, Junie B. (and don’t you forget that B!) takes it upon herself to decree other small anecdotes about the people and places around her. She calls her kindergarten teacher “Mrs.,” not because she doesn’t have a last name, but because Junie B. prefers just “Mrs.” Even her classmates have monikers from prissy Richie Lucille to the incorrigible That Grace. As for kindergarten itself? According to Junie B., the institution a serious drag where “you meet new friends and don’t watch TV.”
“Then Mrs. confiscated my shiny glitter jar. Confiscate is the school word for yanked it right out of my hand.”
- Junie B. Jones, Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business
When I was younger, Junie B. Jones was one of my favorite series. I gobbled her stories up wherever I could get my hands on them, from tattered paperbacks at the school library to audiobooks for long car rides. But even though I was entertained by her misadventures, I never wanted to emulate Junie B. On the contrary, I knew from my parents’ warnings that Junie B. was not the kind of girl I wanted to be. Junie B. Jones, with her bold pronouncements, refusal to give in to authority, and stubbornness that often broke into hysteria, was a bad girl.
“Oh, it's delightful to have ambitions. I'm so glad I have such a lot. And there never seems to be any end to them-- that's the best of it.”
- Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables
If Junie B. Jones was a fictional example of the “bad girl,” then I’ve wanted to be “good” for as long as I can remember. I can still remember the knots of anxiety that formed in my stomach whenever I so much as thought about the chapter in Anne of Green Gables when Anne accidentally gets her friend Diana extraordinarily drunk, inciting the rage of Diana’s mother and a hearty dose of humiliation for the red-headed orphan. In other words, for every rule-breaking, back-talking, determined baddie I read about, I strove to emulate their tamer counterpart. While literary tradition built altars to Jo March, I would have rather been Meg; give me Laura Ingalls, and I modeled myself after Mary; if we were talking about Anne Shirley, Diana Barry was more my style.
Looking back, I realize the consistent trait that drew me to these soft-spoken, mature, supporting characters: The Megs and the Marys and the Dianas were described as elegant, graceful, dependable, and pretty. These were the “good girls,” the personalities that people admired and wanted to be around. As a young girl already riddled with interpersonal anxieties, I latched on to these girls as anchors. If I strove to be a Meg, or a Mary, or a Diana, I told myself, then I couldn’t do anything wrong.
“I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle--something heroic, or wonderful--that won't be forgotten after I'm dead. I don't know what, but I'm on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all, some day.”
- Jo March, Little Women
Now, with 20/20 hindsight it’s not hard to see where my five-year-old mind was getting ideas about which traits constituted a successful girl. It’s no secret that society places more pressure on girls and women to be “good” as opposed to men who--from Huck Finn to Jay Gatsby-- are encouraged and celebrated for their wildness. Those influences, coupled with the watchful eye of my parents, who discouraged me from sitting cross-legged as a toddler because it “isn’t ladylike,” created a very clear picture of the model girl. Junie B., Jo, Laura, Anne & Co. did not exactly fit the description.
The process of writing this piece obviously gave me a lot of time to mull over all the bad girls I’ve read about, and all the good girls I tried to be. I realize now that the Megs and the Marys and the Dianas of literature are merely one example of how society corners women with a very narrow definition of goodness. Similarly to how clothing advertisements enforce suffocating body standards, for young readers these characters and their behavior can easily be viewed as role models for the future. Regardless of one’s age, the idea that there is and “ideal” womanhood than manifests as deference, self-effacement, and silence is far more problematic than talking back to an adult, or mistaking a bottle of wine for raspberry cordial.
- Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie
At age 19, I refuse to accept that being good and having agency should be mutually exclusive. Rather than being quiet and perfectly agreeable, I try to be “good” by embodying loyalty, generosity, and caring. I am still becoming comfortable with asserting myself, whether that is in class, among my peers, or in my own family, but I try to remember that voicing my needs does not make me a bad person. If nothing else, my definition of a good person demands that I use my voice and the privileges that come with it in order to stand up for what I believe in.
And what about those bad girls I read about but swore I’d never be? I look back on them now as the hidden heroines of my childhood, as the best friends and role models I never knew I had, but who were always there. From the kindergarten classroom to the prairie, from wartime New England and up to Prince Edward Island, these characters taught me about risk-taking, having fun, and being true to yourself. They showed me that my worth was not defined by being soft-spoken or pretty, and that there was more to life than getting a boy to like you. Most importantly, they taught me the importance of being the main character in my own story.
It recently occurred to me that I am at an age when the media available to children today is completely unfamiliar to me. When I babysit a nine-year-old girl in my neighborhood, we pick out her bedtime reading from a bookshelf stacked with titles that didn’t exist when I was her age. The more nostalgic I get for the days I spent in bed, reading about Junie B. Jones, Jo March, Laura Ingalls, and Anne Shirley, the more I realize how important the characters I read about are to the person I’m becoming today. Next time I babysit to that nine-year-old, I am going to encourage her to pay attention to the bold, kooky girls in her bedtime stories. I am going to tell her that while those characters might not be the role models her teachers talk about in class, their antics are lessons in how to live a fulfilled life and stand up for herself. If she questions me (which I hope she does), I’ll explain how these characters impacted the path I am on today. I’ll tell her how, while I’m not sure of very much, I do know one thing: wherever I end up, I’m going to be the Junie B. Jones of my own life.