Picture this: Dick and Jane return Readers: After three decades, the famous reading book characters resurface in an exhibit of 70 original watercolor illustrations.

The Education Beat

December 11, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

SPOT IS UP and running again, and so we can join Dick and Jane in uttering the most famous sentence in 20th-century American schoolbooks: "See Spot run!"

Yes, yes, the family's back after an absence of three decades -- those wholesome, winsome stars of the first-grade "basals" that helped teach 85 million Americans to read over a span of nearly 40 years.

No, no, Dick and Jane aren't back in the classroom, where they were done in by phonics and cultural diversity about 1965. What's happened is that those embodiments of a near-perfect middle-class suburban life have been caught up in the wave of boomer nostalgia. Witness:

Visitors are flocking to an exhibit of 70 original watercolor illustrations covering 15 years in the lives of Dick, Jane, Sally, their pets, their parents and grandparents. Organized in -- where else? -- Peoria, Ill., the exhibit is now playing at -- where else? -- the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

A new Dick and Jane retrospective, "Growing Up With Dick and Jane," by Carole Kismaric and Marvin Heiferman, quickly sold out its first printing. There's also renewed interest in a 1986 tongue-in-cheek update, "More Fun With Dick and Jane," which has both Jane and Sally divorced (Sally twice) and Jane selling Amway products.

Originals of the readers, which date to the early 1930s, now command a dear price. "They're very hard to come by and getting very expensive," said Linda Lapides, a retired Enoch Pratt librarian who specializes in children's literature.

"It's partly those wonderful illustrations that endear Dick and Jane," said A. Karen Blair, graduate coordinator of reading programs at Towson State University. "After years of readers that were primarily text, Dick and Jane introduced big, bold pictures consuming most of a page. The pictures helped tell the story for the first time."

Dick and Jane hold a nostalgic attraction, too, Blair said. "They help us remember the easy, comfortable, happy, noncomplex and secure childhoods many of us had," she said. "I know I had it. Dick and Jane's life very much resembled my family life when I was in the first grade in 1955 -- all but the picket fence."

Most of all, Blair said, Dick and Jane were happy, always having fun, fun, fun -- in sharp contrast to the Great Depression and the World War that swirled around them as they refused to age through the '30s and '40s. (Current affairs were never mentioned in the readers, nor was Father's occupation.)

Dick was a model for generations of boys, a resourceful lad always on the move, always learning something new. Jane was pretty and bright, learning to bake cookies and bring in the laundry. She never showed up her older brother. She wore something new in nearly every story -- about 200 different outfits over the years.

Three-year-old Sally never got into a serious mess, but her minor scrapes often provided the plot for the readers' stories. She would get lost on the bus or drop her ice cream cone, and Dick would be there to comfort her. But Spot, the perfect dog who never messed the yard, was forever saving Sally's day. He was a terrier in the series' early days, turning to a springer spaniel in 1936.

Father and Mother, Grandfather and Grandmother never had a last name. Father was everything you wanted: gentle helpmate, spent time with his kids, never had to spank them or even discipline them. He went to work each morning in a blue suit and fedora. Mother was the quintessential homemaker and helpmate apron and heels.

Like the Crayola crayon, Dick and Jane -- written by William S. DTC Gray and May Hill Arbuthnot -- are a part of growing up for millions of Americans. For the four decades spanning midcentury, Scott, Foresman and Co.'s readers commanded as much as 80 percent of the basal reader market.

Ask a school superintendent, Anthony Marchione of Baltimore County, who learned to read with Dick and Jane at Dundalk Elementary in the early 1940s.

Ask a Catonsville auto mechanic, Mike Lockett, who learned with Dick and Jane in a three-room Frederick parochial school in the late 1950s.

Ask Simmona Simmons-Hodo, reference librarian at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, whose Dick and Jane books were tattered hand-me-downs at the black segregated Town Neck Elementary School in Anne Arundel County.

People remember Dick and Jane differently, of course. "I remember the yellow hair," said Simmons-Hodo, "but Dick and Jane didn't look like anyone I knew. I could relate to the dog, however."

The lack of diversity is one thing that spelled doom for Dick and Jane in the turbulent 1960s. In that decade, the publisher had Father doing dishes and Mother driving the car. A black family with cute twin girls and a boy Dick's age moved in across the street.

But it was too late. Not only was the family embarrassingly one-dimensional; the stories were "sterile," as Marchione put it.

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