Growing up with Dick and Jane

Dick and Jane Play Dad and Mom
Dick and Jane Play Dad and Mom in a classic book.

Our elementary school was built in the late 1800s. A sturdy, two-story, red-brick edifice with white trim, it was typical of the times.

The kindergarten classroom had high ceilings and long narrow windows along one wall. It contrasted with the dark, enclosed cloakroom, where a row of hooks held our coats. In winter, we’d leave snow pants, mufflers and snow boots there, as well.

Naptime was midafternoon. We’d each lie on the polished hardwood floor on a rag rug from home. Afterward, there’d be a snack of chocolate milk and a banana. With Teacher at the piano, we sang songs (one may have been about a sunbeam) learned from memory.

Whatever else happened in kindergarten and the other primary grades is a blur, with the exception of our first-grade primers, the Dick and Jane readers. I was enchanted with their lovely watercolor illustrations depicting Dick and Jane, their parents, pets and little sister, Sally, playing games and learning about life. Misty memories of the pictures’ bright colors and movement certainly carried over into adulthood.

Dick and Jane Play Dad and Mom

The contemporary book, Growing Up With Dick and Jane: Learning and Living the American Dream, has happily brought those readers back into focus. Authored by Carole Kismaric and Marvin Heiferman, and published by Harper Collins in 1996, it’s an entertaining and informative text that tracks important historical, social and educational events of the “Dick and Jane era,” from the 1930s to the 1960s.

I purchased the book for my nephew, Alex, to compare earlier teaching methods with those being practiced with his first-grade daughter, Hazel, today. Perusing it, I discovered just how much more than the mechanics of reading we learned from Dick and Jane back in that old brick building so long ago.

Through conversation and behavior, the pair taught us proper manners. Good citizenship, fair play and respect for elders also were stressed. Dick was responsible, overseeing his younger sisters, helping around the house. Jane was pretty, bright-eyed and stable. They made perfect role models.

But it was those wonderful pictures, filled with drama and surprise, that really told the stories:

“Illustrations in Dick and Jane books worked just as hard as the words printed beneath them,” wrote the authors in their retrospective. “Simple as they might seem, they were full of complex details and information a child could study and discover — the kind of sneakers Dick wore, how a sprinkler attached to a hose, how Mother bent her knees when she jumped rope. Movie-like, they looked spontaneous and true-to-life because the illustrators worked from photographs.”

Teachers loved Dick and Jane books because they did their job so well. But in the 1960s, parents started moving away from traditional family life. The ethnic and racial mix in the U.S. was changing. Dick and Jane had become dated. They were retired and replaced with reading programs appropriate to the times.

Nevertheless, I’m guessing the replica booklet, We Look and See, and the paper dolls of Dick and Jane that came with Growing Up With Dick and Jane will enchant my great-great niece, Hazel, as much as they once did me.


FIND THE BOOKS!

Penguin Young Readers offers Dick and Jane books in classic and early reader formats, including hardback options. Learn more at penguinrandomhouse.com or amazon.com.


Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess. Send comments and questions to chall@mngoodage.com.