Run Spot Run with Dick and Jane

Books from the Edgar and Faith King Juvenile Literature Collection frequently trigger pleasant memories from my childhood. The Dick and Jane Basic Readers from the King Collection hold a special place in my heart.

I loved books long before I could read. My parents used to tell me that I would take my books to bed with me. Little Wonder Books were my sleeping companions rather than stuffed animals and toys. It should be no surprise then that I still hold the Dick and Jane readers in reverence. They were my introduction to reading.

The concepts for Dick and Jane were developed in 1927 through a collaboration between Zerna Sharp, a reading consultant for Scott Foresman, and William S. Gray, an editor and reading authority for Scott Foresman and Company’s Elson Readers. Sharp was convinced that if children could identify with the characters in stories and pictures they would learn to read better, especially if the words they were reading were familiar to them. She went to Gray with her ideas and he hired her to create the characters for the stories. Sharp, working with others, developed the characters and stories, using simple four letter names and short words. They created a world that would be interesting to a six year old. Dick and Jane appeared in 1930 in Elson’s Basic Reader pre-primer.

The readers used the concept of whole word recognition. The public seemed to love the idea of the stories that related to the large colorful illustrations and the readers quickly became a huge success. According to Growing Up with Dick and Jane by Carole Kismaric and Marvin Heiferman eighty-five million children from the 1930s through the 1960s learned to learn from this series of readers.

The perfect white suburban family life depicted in the stories began to be criticized in the 1960’s. The publishers responded in 1965 with the addition of new characters but this hardly addressed all of the issues. The family structure found in the stories was based on the 1920s and the world had changed. In 1970, Scott Foresman and Company discontinued the series. Many schools destroyed their copies of the books and consequently, the Readers are somewhat scarce. Special Collections has over twenty books that are part of the Dick and Jane series, spanning the years of their publication. We also have some of the earlier readers by William S. Gray.

The Dick and Jane Basic Readers represent the direction schoolbooks took in the early and mid-twentieth century and nicely complement our other schoolbook collections. Special Collections has one of the most extensive collections of McGuffey Eclectic Readers. We also have an additional 5000 schoolbooks, in numerous subject areas, published primarily in the nineteenth century.

Much of the historical background for this post came from the book Growing Up with Dick and Jane by Carole Kismaric and Marvin Heiferman. It is a colorful history of the Readers and a history of the era that produced them. This book is also in Special Collections.

Jim Bricker
Senior Library Technician