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Growing Up with Dick and Jane

History of Reading News. Vol.XXII No.1 (1998:Fall)
by Grace Vyduna-Haskins

From time to time we come across a document of history that is simply written and truly enjoyable reading. Such is the case with Growing Up with Dick and Jane: Learning and Living the American Dream by Carole Kismaric and Marvin Heiferman (HarperCollins, 1996). As one who learned to read via the 1930s edition of the Dick and Jane books and who fully experienced the era, teaching children to read via the 1960s edition, I felt a sense of nostalgia while reading this book.

The authors' approach a historical analysis from three directions: historical events, cameos of the characters, and information about the producers. They provide insights into the life and times of the American people through four decades: the Depression Era of the 1930s; the war and postwar years of the 1940s; the baby boom, homogenized tract housing, industrial impact, and drive-by culture of the 1950s; and the political unrest and breakdown of the nuclear family in the 1960s.

Throughout the book are interspersed vignettes of the characters in the Scott-Foresman readers. Dick is described as the all-American boy, a role model protector of his younger sisters. Jane is a dream of a girl, pretty, bright, and responsible. Sally is portrayed as a force of nature, unpredictable and full of energy, whose silly antics make story plots spin.

Entering the series as a black-and-white terrier in the early series, Spot turned into a sentimental cocker spaniel in 1936, a dog who wears two hats: a loving pet and a dog who teaches Dick and Jane responsibility. First known as Little Mew, Puff also underwent a name change and became more adventurous in her interactions with the children. Tim is Sally's little sidekick and security blanket, quietly absorbing endless abuse offered by an active three-year-old. Father is gentle, tolerant, patient, and soft-spoken. Mother is pretty and graceful, an excellent homemaker who makes everything look easy. Grandfather and Grandmother, who live on a farm, appear to become younger with the passing years.

Insights are provided about the authors and illustrators. Reading consultant Zerna Sharp believed that children would read better if they identified with children in the illustrations. She shared her ideas with William S. Gray, who then hired her to develop a family of characters to fold into his scientific process approach to reading instruction. Eleanor Campbell used actual photographs of children at play to develop her colorful illustrations, periodically changing their clothing to reflect the styles portrayed in mail order catalogs of the times.

According to the authors, the Dick and Jane readers were never immune to criticism. Educators' denunciation of the repetitious language, the goody-goody behavior of the children, the changing roles in the American family, and ethnic issues all contributed to the retirement of the characters. Nevertheless, Dick and Jane have left their mark on millions of American school children, now grown to adulthood. Hip advertisements, museum exhibitions, and television shows keep their history alive.

Included with the book is a commemorative collection of stories from the early readers and cutout dolls featuring Dick and Jane. This book truly offers the chance to "step back into the watercolor world of Dick and Jane, where night never comes, knees never scrape, parents never yell and the fun never stops." (inside cover).

Grace Vyduna-Haskins is retired after teaching for 33 years, mostly at the first grade level in Johnsburg Community Unit School District 12 in Johnsburg, IL. She currently serves as secretary for the History of Reading SIG.




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