cover of Junie B bookMy daughter and I loved the Junie B. stories. They’re chapter books for young kids about a rather wild first-grader, and importantly, they’re narrated by Junie B. herself. She gets her grammar wrong, sometimes, and so it’ll sometimes say “I runned” instead of “I ran”, but what kid doesn’t? When we got to those points, my then-five-year-old daughter would grin knowingly and say “she should have said “I ran”, shouldn’t she? And Junie B.’s faulty grammar goes along with her frequent misunderstandings of the world. She’s a classic unreliable narrator, though she’s very lovable, and as such she teaches kids a lot about narrative, empathy, relationships and yes, even grammar.

I was surprised to read that a lot of parents want to ban Junie B. Apparently, they worry that the minor grammatical errors of a five-year-old in print will stop their children from learning correct grammar. Here’s an extract so you can see for yourself:

I put my hands on my waist.

“Yeah, well too bad for you,” I said. “‘Cos I saw all about ponies on TV. And ponies buck you off their backs. And then they stomple you into the ground and kill you to death. And so I wouldn’t even come to your stupid dumb party in a jillion billion years.”

“Good” shouted that Jim, “I’m glad! ‘Cos my birthday is this coming Saturday! And tomorrow I’m bringing invitations to every single person in Room Nine! Only not to you! You’re the only one in the whole class I’m not bringing an invitation to! So there!”

Then he did a big HAH! right in my face.

And he sat back down in his seat.

Meanwhile, I just kept standing and standing there.

‘Cos something had gone a little bit wrong here, I think.

cover of True History of the Kelly GangI wonder whether the Junie B.-haters would also ban Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, a wonderful novel narrated by Ned Kelly, Australia’s beloved bushranger, our Robin Hood, our downtrodden convict’s son turned rebel, the man who almost started the Australian Revolution that never happened. Ned Kelly was illiterate, but dictated some of his life story to a friend.

I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.Excerpt from The Guardian

I loved that book. Sure, it was hard reading for the first few pages, but then you forget about the language and just sink into the story. But the punctuation is terrible, and the grammar, oh dear.

Why, though, should we assume that adults can handle something like this while five-year-olds can’t? I tend to have more faith in five-year-olds.

5 thoughts on “trusting kids with unreliable narrators

  1. JoseAngel

    Well the cartoons (and kids’ books too) keep training them to do more complex interpretive things sooner, that’s a fact.

  2. Heidi Ashbaugh

    Surprisingly several of the books chosen for the Booker Prize have been very similar to Peter Carey’s. Vernon God Little is the one that comes to mind. It’s the misadventures of a high schooler who’s grammatical errors mirror his confusion about the world around him. Several times reading the book I remember laughing out loud, but it also evoked a sense of pity in me – I felt for this youngling! In regards to Junie B. Jones, this is a complex question. Shouldn’t parents read the books with the children in order to create “learning moments”? Should the outcome of the story be more important than the language used to tell it? How will children feel about Junie – smarter because they can correct her, smarter for learning from her experiences? This makes me think that the character Vernon God Little’s parents pretty obviously didn’t read with him, or communicate with him about life’s events in a way that Junie B. Jones makes possible. You only have to read Vernon’s ending to think that maybe this communication – rather than language alone – is what is really important.

  3. Jill Walker Rettberg

    I’m going to have to read Vernon God Little. And yes, you might have a point: I read Junie B. for my daughter – I don’t think she actually read any of them herself, she moved on to other books by hte time she was reading long books on her own. That would make for a very different experience compared to a kid reading them on their own and perhaps not seeing the grammatical errors. At t

  4. Anne B J

    There were plans for experiments in Norwegian schools, where first-graders were allowed to write in their own style, so to speak, they were supposed to learn how to write first, and then how to write correctly. Or something. You should know more about this, I believe?

    I will have more experience with the Norwegian school system next year when my daughter starts school. (Yes, Jill, I have a husband and a daughter. Unbelievable, I know.)

    Also, the case of books like Vernon God Little shows that writers now experiment a lot with (mis)spelling, slang and mixing languages. Writers with a diverse cultural background bring that experience into their writing and create something new.
    And Norwegians know well that languages and correct spelling change. Ibsen wrote in a langauge more similar with Danish than modern day Norwegian. The rules for what is standard Norwegian are not very old, and they keep changing.


    […] ^ Jill Walker Retberg. “trusting kids with unreliable narrators”. […]

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