See Dick. See Jane. Their book is hot! Hot! Hot! Hot!

July 22, 1993|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,Arizona Republic

The monotonous Dick and Jane books that helped teach baby boomers to read are now considered by many educators to be a big B-O-R-E.

But while Dick, Jane, Spot and Puff may be long gone from most elementary school classrooms, they are hardly forgotten.

Nostalgia-crazed grown-ups have turned the primers into hot items, according to book dealers, libraries and the original publisher.

"From our contacts with the general public, we're finding that they're becoming collectors' items," says Nancie Mitchell, a librarian at Scott, Foresman and Co. of Glenview, Ill., which published the textbooks from 1930 until 1965.

Interest is great enough that an educational producer is filming a documentary about the Dick and Jane series, and the Richmond, Va., public library has contacted the publisher about a special display.

A lot of adults, it seems, simply want to touch a piece of their childhoods -- even if it is a piece that now seems strangely out of touch.

"People call all the time and ask about them," says Beulah Holbert, an employee at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library in Washington, D.C.

"They just want to look at them and see them again, but we don't have them anymore."

The Phoenix, Ariz., Central Library staff members say its copies, too, had all "worn out."

All editions have been out of stock since the early 1970s. However, thousands of copies probably remain in private hands because the books had large printing runs.

A Washington-area receptionist said recently that she paid $35 to a rare-book dealer for a hardcover copy of one of the books.

"It just brought back so many memories of first and second grade," she says.

Dick and Jane were the creation of Zerna Sharp, a reading consultant to the 97-year-old Scott, Foresman & Co., which still publishes readers and other books. Ms. Sharp selected the characters' names because they were easy to read, patterning the plots from children's interests. Various authors wrote the stories, all following a basic format.

The series began 63 years ago with a basic reader that began, "See Dick. See Dick run."

The illustrated book was made up of stories about Dick, Jane, Father,Mother, Spot the dog and Little Mew the kitten, whose name later was changed to Puff.

Other characters and books followed, including a multi-ethnic edition in 1965 that featured several non-Caucasian people.

There has been talk of producing a commemorative edition, but the books were generally so purebred and sex-stereotyped that some at the publishing house fear a backlash, according to Ms. Mitchell.

They also have been criticized for their singsong, repetitive style.

For example, a typical passage from More Dick and Jane Stories, published in 1934, began:

"Where is the rabbit?" said Jane.

"Where is the rabbit?" said Dick.

"Bowwow," said Spot.

Although the bite-size approach to reading still has its backers, many children these days learn from "real books," says Kitty Kaczmarek, director of staff development for the Glendale (Calif.) Elementary School District.

"The premise of Dick and Jane was that a story was too difficult, so we have to break it down to words, and they have to know the words in isolation," Ms. Kaczmarek says. "That's a very flat-earth view of what reading is all about, and we have evolved a whole lot further."

Schools today also have resources that were not available in the Dick and Jane era. For example, pupils are aided by typing words on computers that give them oral commands.

"You have to admit, 'See Dick go!' is not real language that children are used to hearing," Ms. Kaczmarek says.

"Reading is a process of constructing meaning. If the language is artificial and children can't predict, then we're actually making reading more difficult."

Despite her criticism, Ms. Kaczmarek said that she, too, was reared on Dick and Jane books.

"I have my own little collection," she says.

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