VanHaren: The nostalgia of Dick and Jane

By: 

Roger VanHaren

Does the simple phrase “See Spot Run” push your nostalgia button?

It pushed mine. In a novel I was reading recently, the narrator used that phrase, and I was immediately transported back to 1945 at St. Anthony’s School in Oconto Falls – Sister Dominic’s first-grade classroom.

Our first “readers” were the “Dick and Jane” series. Dick and Jane, their mom and dad, their little sister Sally, Spot (the dog) and Puff (the cat) were characters in the series. I sure remember them, and I’m reasonably sure that anyone my age would, too. There was no diversity in Dick and Jane’s world. It wasn’t until the early ’60s (I was already out of college by then) that the series included some African-American characters.

As I am often wont to do, I went to the web to see what I could find out about the series. Well, I learned that Zerna Sharp was the woman who invented the characters Dick and Jane to help teach people my age how to read.

Zerna Sharp was born in Hillisburg, Indiana, in 1889. According to the stuff I found, Miss Sharp was a beautiful and highly intelligent woman, and she deserves credit in the creation of Dick and Jane. Sharp didn’t write the books, but she created the characters. Sharp’s idea was to use pictures and repetition to teach children new words. She took her idea to Dr. William S. Gray, who had been studying the way children learn to read, and he hired her to create a series of textbooks.

In her view, very young students had a hard time reading because they couldn’t relate to standard children’s books. So Sharp proposed a collection of short stories that would each introduce a handful of new words. The stories would feature average kids that any elementary schooler could identify with. And—critically—these characters would appear in simple illustrations designed to help connect a given word with its definition.

In the series, each story introduced five new words, one on each page. And there were companion “Think-and-Do” books which provided for more learning activities. Remember those?

The first “Dick and Jane” stories appeared in a 1930 primer series, the “Elson-Gray Readers.” For the next 40 years, more than 60 million students encountered the rosy-cheeked duo, their mom and dad, Sally, Spot and Puff. By the 1950s, an estimated 80 percent of first-graders were using Dick and Jane.

Simple, repetitive sentences, colorful illustrations and a secure, unhurried sense of childhood characterized the Dick and Jane readers that I remember. There were scenes like Dick and Jane delighting in their dog Spot’s adventure with a frog: “Come, Dick. Come and see. Come, come. Come and see. Come and see Spot. Look, Spot. Oh. look. Look and see. Oh, see.” Remember those great lines? The pictures encouraged us young readers to fill in the plot line. But now when I think about them, I realize that they presented a world that was more ideal than true-to-life for many Depression-era kids before me and World War II-era kids like me.

After the war, many families were benefiting from a prosperous post-war economy. As suburban homes, ownership of cars and increased purchasing power became reality for some families, Dick and Jane’s comfortable world began to be experienced by an increasing pool of baby boom-era readers. So the series had to adapt. They began to show a prosperity almost unfathomable by people of my era. By the 1960s, the books even portrayed TVs. But not as passive devices that would discourage reading, writing and community, but rather as interactive mediums that would encourage those activities. Did that ever happen?

The series was ended in 1965, but publishing giant Pearson, which acquired the rights to the original “Dick and Jane” books when it bought publisher Scott Foresman in 1996, parlayed millions of Americans’ warm memories of first grade into hefty sales — 2.5 million books in under a year and a half, not to mention a raft of other merchandise in the works, from calendars and coloring books to clothing. But the return of Dick and Jane was for nostalgia’s sake only; the books were not for classroom use, the publisher says.

While some may believe “Dick and Jane” taught them phonics — the widely accepted instruction method that helps children deconstruct words with repetitive “rat sat on a mat” kind of practice — it’s more likely that kids learned phonics in spite of Dick and Jane. Anyone who learned to read in the last century got at least a taste of phonics, but the Dick and Jane stories actually were a calculated attack on phonics: The authors believed children learned to read best by memorizing a small handful of “sight words” and repeating them over and over — the “look/say” method. Many teachers (like the nuns at St. Anthony’s) who used Dick and Jane also gave students phonics practice on the side.

I found an interesting article that was published in Life magazine in 1954. The article was written by John Hersey, and it was a scathing critique of the Dick and Jane series. Hersey said the series was “painfully boring.” The article led William Spaulding, who was head of the educational division of Houghton Mifflin Publishing, to challenge Theodore Geisel (“Dr. Seuss”) to write “a story that first-graders can’t put down.” The result was “The Cat in the Hat,” Dr. Seuss’s first smash hit. He bragged, “I have great pride in taking Dick and Jane out of most school libraries. That is my greatest satisfaction.”

Still, in their day, Dick and Jane were cutting-edge, and I still remember them 60 years later!

Contact Roger VanHaren at rjmavh@gmail.com.