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    Auction Finds

    An actual larger-than-life Dick and Jane

    When I saw the pictures of the children in the book, it took me back decades. When I was a child they were like our fictitious rich cousins, always enjoying their good life, with me and millions of other children wandering vicariously among them.

    They were the characters in my first-grade readers in Mrs. Rainey’s class (she was one of the sweetest persons, but aren’t all first-grade teachers?). My mother had taught me to read before I started school, so I’m sure I whizzed through the simply written stories.

    “Look, Look.

    Oh, Oh, Oh.

    Oh, Oh.

    Oh, Look.”

    Dick and Jane books

    Dick does his chores, while Sally fools around.

    A copy of a bound oversized version of these books was laid out on an auction table recently, along with another that told the story of a similar family whom I was unfamiliar with. Interestingly, these early readers were a total departure from the 19th-century primers I normally come across at auction. Those were dull looking outside but offered more classical and complex tales inside.

    Titled “Our Big Book,” the binder at auction contained the first six stories of “We Look and See,” described as the “beginning pre-primer of the  New Basic Readers.” The paper binder had an easel in the back for propping on a table so all children in the classroom could see the tall lettering, even those hiding in the back.

    “Look. Look.

    Oh, Look.

    See Jane.”

    Dick and Jane books

    A mishap awaits Sally.

    Every American child of a certain age learned to read from these Dick and Jane books. The story of Dick and Jane – white, suburban, from a well-groomed and middle class family – was designed to teach us the simplicity and joy of life in two, three and four letter words. It didn’t matter that many of us – both black and white children – knew no one like them. We were focused on learning to read rather than the social implications of the books. And given the mores of the times, any black children in the books would have been poorly portrayed.

    “We Look and See” was the first of the books for first grade, followed by “We Work and Play,” “We Come and Go,” “Guess Who” and “Fun With Dick and Jane.”

    According to the binder,”We Look and See” from 1951 was written by William S. Gray, Marion Monroe, A. Sterly Artley and May Hill Arbuthnot, and illustrated by Eleanor Campbell. Over the years, the books underwent various updates with different authors and illustrators.

    Dick and Jane books

    Dick, Jane, Sally and Spot, along with Jane’s Raggedy Ann-style doll.

    The Dick and Jane series grew out of a group of textbooks first created in 1909 by William H. Elson that used the classics and folktales to teach children to read. Publisher Scott Foresman & Co. began revising the readers in the late 1920s using new educational methods that had emerged.

    During the 1920s, a reading consultant and editor at Scott Foresman collaborated on a book that would present fictional children that real children could identify with, doing normal things that children do. The idea was to create a world that any 6-year-old would enjoy living in while helping them to read through simple and repetitive words.

    The result in 1930 was a family consisting of Dick, Jane, Sally, Father, Mother, dog Spot and cat Puff – which most of us children, black or white, could not identify with. The series of Dick and Jane books were a hit, selling millions of copies over the next 30 years, reaching 85 million first graders.

    Dick and Jane books

    An African American family was added to the series in 1965. Here is Mike and his twin sisters Pam and Penny.

    A backlash against the series and its look-say concept began in the 1950s; the books were dismissed as being both boring and a failure at helping children to read. Around that time, another publisher asked Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss) to take a crack at creating a story that children would love by using no more than 225 of the 348 words that most of them knew or should know. Geisel – no fan of the Dick and Jane series, either – came back with The Cat in the Hat.”” It is said to have booted Dick and Jane as the most favored of books.

    The criticism continued into the 1960s for the series’ lack of diversity in race, culture and gender. Also at this time, President Johnson spearheaded a bill to improve education in poor schools with a nod toward providing educational materials for children who lived in urban areas. In 1965, Scott Foresman added an African American family into the mix: a black child named Mike, his twin sisters Pam and Penny, and their mother and father.

    By that time, Dick and Jane books had lost their luster, and ceased publication in 1965. The books continued to be sold until the 1970s.

    The family pets, Spot and Puff.

    The family pets, Spot and Puff.

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    1 Comment

    1. My sister went to a public school so I was familiar with the “Dick and Jane” books but my school was a parochial school and had different primer books. Jack and Janet I believe were the main characters names with a sister called Penny and a dog and cat called Tip and Mitten. I really loved those books. And have lots of fond memories of them.
      I found one large teachers edition which I had to pass on but I keep my eyes open for others.

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