Finding Good Chapter Book Friends: Junie B. Jones v. Jasper John Dooley

A Childlike Attitude

jasper john dooley troubleMy friends, there is an enormous difference between the childish and the childlike. George MacDonald famously commented that he didn’t write for children but for the childlike (no matter their “age”). This childlike essence helps explain why grown ups still read The Chronicles of Narnia or Edith Nesbit’s books with delight, and it is also part of the reason easy reader series such as Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books are so popular. In Scripture, Jesus encourages us to have faith like a child, so we know that there is something inherent in a child’s approach to the world that should stay with us into adulthood.

Childlike and childisare both attitudes. The first is a positive expression: presumed innocence (about worldly concerns), delight in make-believe, enjoyment of a rollicking good adventure, the enjoyable suspension of disbelief, the security of the family. Rather than temporal grown-up or young adult concerns (Who likes whom? What is my body doing? Do my parents still love me? Who am I really?), the concerns present in childlike works are part and parcel of childhood. Ironically, most childlike works still express our deepest concerns and joys, fears and delights that stay with us always: questions such as “In whom can we trust?” or  “Is death the end?” coupled with pleasures such as true friendship, wonder at the changing seasons, and the belief that Bilbo really did find a magic ring. [Incidentally, the best middle grade fiction successfully straddles both the childlike approach to the world and the emergence of more young adult concerns. The Penderwicks are an excellent example.]

This childlike attitude is the key ingredient in the children’s classics we still read 100 years after their initial publication date, the reason we don’t hesitate to hand The Wind in the WillowsPinocchio, Peter Pan, and others to precocious young readers, as well as the reason why content such as “violence” in contemporary books such as The Green Ember isn’t disturbing in the same way violence in A Dragon’s Tooth is. The former is more “childlike.” (The latter isn’t “childish,” but it’s not “childlike” either).

Junie B. Jones v. Jasper John Dooleyjunie b jones

The sense of the childlike is what makes some children’s works so much better than others. To illustrate the difference between childish and childlike, let’s get to know Junie B. Jones and Jasper John Dooley. On the surface, they have several things in common: early elementary students, an only child protagonist, title characters of early chapter books, and…

Well, that’s about it. I’ve seen Junie B. Jones books on numerous suggested reading lists—seven of those from Christian schools—and the inclusion of these books puzzles me immensely. Junie B. Jones is a classic example of a childish protagonist: she has a bad attitude, is terribly disrespectful to her parents, tries to be funny at the expense of others—in short, she is a picture perfect example of the terrible twos. We expect children to grow out of these behaviors (and, hopefully, our parenting reflects that goal); we do NOT find these traits admirable, nor do we desire them to continue on into first grade. Why, then, do we hand books featuring protagonists like this to our children?

In contract, Jasper John Dooley is childlike. He is funny, endearing, lovable, and makes plenty of mistakes. But his mistakes are childlike and the logical outworkings of a busy, energetic, and creative elementary student. He is not disrespectful, he does not laugh at others’ expense, and he has a pretty good attitude even when things don’t go his way. THIS is the kind of kid I want my children to read about and enjoy “getting to know.”

It’s worth helping your children pick their book friends the same way they pick their real-life friends. If there are traits in book friends that you wouldn’t want in real-life friends, it’s time to break off the friendship and find better friends…

What are some childlike chapter books you can recommend?

Cover images from Amazon

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Betsy Farquhar

Betsy is the Managing Editor at Redeemed Reader. When she reads ahead for you, she uses sticky notes instead of book darts and willfully dog ears pages even in library books. Betsy is a fan of George MacDonald, robust book discussions, and the Oxford comma. She lives with her husband and their three children in the beautiful Southeast.

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  1. Cheryl on April 13, 2015 at 10:46 am

    Wonderful analysis, Betsy! It was someone like you, early on, who admonished me, “Don’t resort to Captain Underpants and Junie B. Jones in an attempt to warm your child up to reading.” I’m thankful I took his or her advice. Thank you for your work in revealing the substance behind such admonishing and recommendations. It helps me to see your heart and trust your guidance, as we parents are time-strapped and unable to test all the options firsthand.

  2. Kansas Mom on April 13, 2015 at 10:54 am

    Thank you for sharing about Jasper. I just checked a bunch of the books out of the library. I know I didn’t care for Clementine ( I read the first few Daisy Dawson books and liked them well enough to read them with my daughter when she was a new reader.

  3. Jo on April 13, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    I came to website today, intending to search for your opinion of Junie B. Jones. And there it was, in a blog posted just today! Thank you!

  4. Betsy Farquhar on April 13, 2015 at 10:15 pm

    Glad you all find this analysis helpful! I’m a fan of Daisy Dawson, too–and, I must confess, I do like Clementine on occasion. But if you want a good, childlike girl character to follow, check out the Lulu books by Hilary McKay (NOT the Lulu books by Viorst). We’ve reviewed the Lulu (McKay) books on this site.

  5. Jennifer on April 14, 2015 at 8:04 am

    Thank you Betsy for sharing your thoughts. Actually, I’ve been searching for a more wholesome, ‘childlike’ character for my 5th grade son to replace ‘Big Nate’ and ‘Wimpy Kid,’ who are banned from my house! If you had any recommendations, I’d be forever grateful!

  6. Cathy on April 14, 2015 at 8:14 am

    Great article, thanks!
    I too find it disappointing to see poor choices on school and library reading lists when there are good and even great ones to choose instead.

  7. Betsy Farquhar on April 20, 2015 at 9:10 am

    Great question, Jennifer! I polled the RR staff, and here are our collective suggestions:
    Jim Kjelgaard’s books have older boys as protagonists, but they’re all upright and upstanding and the books themselves are not many steps beyond chapter books. Also, the books have classic outdoor adventures.

    Henry Huggins books by Beverly Cleary (along with others such as Ralph S. Mouse)
    Roland Smith’s books
    Cheesie Mack
    Almost Super
    Homer Price

    or… the “boys” tag in the right-hand sidebar!

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