Can reading a book rot your brains? Last week's article in the New York Times about the children's book series, Junie B. Jones, got me thinking.
The journalist does a good job of drawing the controversy over the books to battles over phonics and "whole language." And her summary of Junie B. Jones' voice is almost perfect:
And though she is the narrator of the stories, she struggles with grammar. Her adverbs lack the suffix “ly”; subject and object pronouns give her problems, as do possessives; she usually isn’t able to conjugate irregular past tense verbs; and words like funnest and beautifuller are the mainstays of her vocabulary.
I say "almost perfect" because the problem with the books isn't that Junie "struggles with grammar." It's that she doesn't struggle with grammar. Her grammar is, in fact, as strict and rule-bound as a mathematical equation. Unlike most children, in fact, Junie doesn't slip up with irregular verbs — she conjugates them uniformly incorrectly. Junie's solecisms don't bother me most — it's her lack of imagination and literal adherence to a small set of rules. She doesn't sound like a child to me — she sounds like a robot.
What makes this particularly problematic is that the books are written in the first person. The only voice the reader ever gets is Junie B. Jones's voice. There is no contrasting 3rd-person narrator (as in Winnie the Pooh, for instance) who might alert children to the fact that Junie isn't speaking correctly.
The author's comparison of her book with Huckleberry Finn might be legitimate, except for one thing. Huck Finn isn't pitched at the level of novice readers who are still struggling with the elements of proper grammar.