15 Fun Facts About Dick and Jane

Once a beloved teaching tool, Dick and Jane was later denounced as dull, counterproductive, and even misogynistic. Still, whether you loved or hated them, there’s no denying that little Dick and Jane have earned their place in history.

1. THE CHARACTERS WERE CREATED BY AN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL TEACHER. 

A former teacher from Laporte, Ind., Zerna Sharp approached education theorist William S. Gray with an idea that would change the face of American literacy.

In her view, very young students had a hard time reading because they couldn’t relate to standard children’s books. So Sharp proposed a collection of short stories that would each introduce a handful of new words. They’d star average kids that any elementary schooler could identify with. And—critically—these characters would appear in simple illustrations designed to help connect a given word with its definition.

Gray loved the concept. Under his guidance, Sharp developed a core cast: Dick, Jane, baby Sally, Mother, Father, and a well-behaved dog named Spot. As she once explained in an interview, “There’s nothing these book children could do that [actual children] couldn’t remember having done themselves … We made reading easy for them and encouraged them to read more.”

Sharp didn’t personally write any of the several dozen published Dick and Jane compendiums, but she helped supervise their basic plots and paintings. The teacher, who never had any kids of her own, called Dick and Jane my children.” She passed away in 1981.

2. THEY DEBUTED IN 1930'S ELSON BASIC READERS: PRE-PRIMER

Gray co-authored Pre-Primer with William H. Elson, who had been churning out reading primers since 1909. In 1934, it was re-released under the more famous title Dick and Jane. Dozens of sequels would appear over the next 35 years.

3. DICK AND JANE USED A GRADE-BASED COMPLEXITY SYSTEM. 

Editions that were intended for first-graders contained about 300 words apiece. Third-graders were given 1000 and, in 6th grade, kids followed similar escapades in 4000-word volumes.

4. THE SIBLINGS WERE PART OF AN EDUCATIONAL REVOLUTION. 

For many years, most teachers would get new readers started by going over the relationship between letters and sounds (“M” makes an “mmmm” noise, “-tion” sounds like “shun,” etc.). Dick and Jane primers, on the other hand, came with guides that championed the “look-say” approach. This method—which became popular during the 1930s—calls for largely ignoring phonics. Instead, a printed word is repeatedly shown to a child while the teacher says it out loud. Helpful pictures are often involved as well. So typical Dick and Jane paragraphs go something like this: “Look, Spot. Oh, look, look Spot. Look and see. Oh, see. ”

With enough repetition, pupils learn (at least in theory) to “sight read” a given word and add more to their vocabulary—and subconsciously pick up the basics of phonics in the process, enabling them to break down and pronounce new words on their own.

5. BY 1950, AN ESTIMATED 80 PERCENT OF AMERICAN FIRST GRADERS WERE READING DICK AND JANE TEXTS.

Some 85 million first graders plowed through these books between 1930 and 1970.

6. THE BOOKS RELIED ON A GLACIALLY-PACED FORMULA.  

Every page contained one—and only one—new word that the reader hadn’t yet seen in any previous Dick and Jane collections. On every third page, all the new words would be combined. And not a single story introduced more than five or six total.

7. MOTHER AND FATHER REALLY KEPT UP WITH THE TIMES.

Illustrator Eleanor Campbell would regularly consult Sears catalogs so that she could fit the family with “modern” clothes and vehicles in new editions.

8. CHILDREN WROTE MANY LETTERS TO THE TITULAR CHARACTERS. 

Scott Foresman, the Illinois-based company that published Dick and Jane, received a few thousand letters addressed to Dick and Jane—and employees ghostwrote a reply to each dispatch.

9. THERE WAS A DICK AND JANE BACKLASH IN THE LATE 1950S. 

When the look-say strategy began falling out of favor, its poster kids were vilified. In 1955, the educational manifesto Why Johnny Can’t Read championed a return to phonics-based teaching. And author Rudolf Flesch had some choice words for Dick and Jane. The entire franchise, he argued, was “horrible, stupid, emasculated, pointless, [and] tasteless.”

Over the next decade, the backlash grew. In 1961, English professor Arthur S. Trace released What Ivan Knows and Johnny Doesn’t, which claimed that average Russian fourth-graders commanded a vocabulary that was nearly 10,000 words strong. Half a world away, their American counterparts were mastering less than 1800 at that level.

Trace largely blamed the gap on America's obsession with look-say (which he dubbed “look-and-guess”). Students who had been “taught the sounds of the letters from the very beginning … quickly [learned] to ‘sound out’ the many thousands of words which were already in their speaking vocabulary and they could therefore read highly interesting poems and stories.” Dick and Jane, he argued, had to go.  

10. THE SERIES DIDN'T INCLUDE ANY AFRICAN-AMERICAN CHARACTERS UNTIL 1964. 

As the nation finally outlawed public segregation, Fun with Our Friends added an African American family to Dick and Jane’s neighborhood. Among them were an older brother named Mike and his twin sisters Pam and Penny. Catholic schools ran this particular reader a year before public schools picked it up for distribution in ’65.

11. FEMINISTS WEREN'T FANS.

Once the 1970s arrived, Mother swapped Leave it to Beaver-style dresses for pantsuits—but she still spent most of her time around the kitchen. This fact didn’t go unnoticed by the women’s movement. Elizabeth Rider Montgomery, who authored some of Dick and Jane’s most popular titles, admitted in 1976 that “Maybe, by today’s standards, the books are sexist … If I were writing [them] now, I’d have father washing dishes, or mother mowing the lawn. Better yet, both mother and father doing things together, like fixing the car.”

Sharp felt differently. “It never bothered the children,” she said. “That’s all an adult’s viewpoint.”

12. DR. SEUSS BRAGGED ABOUT HELPING TO KILL OFF DICK AND JANE.

Without Sharp’s brainchildren, there’d be no Cat in the Hat. In 1954, Life magazine published a scathing critique of Dick and Jane, which writer John Hersey found painfully boring. Inspired by said piece, William Spaulding—who headed the educational division at Houghton Mifflin publishing—challenged Theodore Seuss Geisel to write “a story that first-graders can’t put down.”

Geisel responded with The Cat in the Hat—his first smash-hit. Children’s literature hasn’t looked back since. “I have great pride in taking Dick and Jane out of most school libraries,” he subsequently said. “That is my greatest satisfaction.”

13. A YIDDISH PARODY LED TO A LAWSUIT.

Though Dick and Jane were retired in 1965, Pearson Education retains the copyright. When Elis Weiner and Barbara Davilman released their 2004 spoof book Yiddish with Dick and Jane (which features lines like “Jane is married to Bob. Jane loves Bob very much. Bob is a real mensch.”), the publishing company sued.

Though Pearson claimed that copyright infringement had taken place, the defendants cited their work as satire “entitled to the full protection of the First Amendment and related laws permitting the expression of social commentary.” The parties eventually settled out of court. 

14. TODAY, VINTAGE DICK AND JANE BOOKS ARE COLLECTOR'S ITEMS.

Many of the baby boomers who grew up on older editions now see them as nostalgic trophies. Authentic first-edition copies of Elson Basic Readers: Pre-Primer can now command a $4275 price tag.

15. ONE AUTHOR CAME UP WITH AN EPILOGUE FOR THE FAMILY. 

Education expert A. Sterl Artley joined the Dick and Jane team after World War II. Following his retirement from academia, the scholar busied himself by hitting the road and delivering lectures prior to his death in 1998. Audiences always asked “Whatever happened to Dick and Jane?” Artley’s standard reply was that Dick became a politician who uses the slogan “Run, Dick, run.” As for Jane, she turned into a staunch woman’s rights advocate. Finally, grown-up Sally now teaches at—where else?—an elementary school, where, he explained, she often told her students to “Jump, children, jump.” 

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Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Sylvia Plath's Pulitzer Prize in Poetry Is Up for Auction
Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Nate D. Sanders Auctions

A Pulitzer Prize in Poetry that was awarded posthumously to Sylvia Plath in 1982 for her book The Collected Poems will be auctioned on June 28. The Los Angeles-based Nate D. Sanders Auctions says bidding for the literary document will start at $40,000.

The complete book of Plath’s poetry was published in 1981—18 years after her death—and was edited by her husband, fellow poet Ted Hughes. The Pulitzer Prize was presented to Hughes on Plath’s behalf, and one of two telegrams sent by Pulitzer President Michael Sovern to Hughes read, “We’ve just heard that the Collected Plath has won the Pulitzer Prize. Congratulations to you for making it possible.” The telegrams will also be included in the lot, in addition to an official congratulatory letter from Sovern.

The Pultizer’s jury report from 1982 called The Collected Poems an “extraordinary literary event.” It went on to write, “Plath won no major prizes in her lifetime, and most of her work has been posthumously published … The combination of metaphorical brilliance with an effortless formal structure makes this a striking volume.”

Ted Hughes penned an introduction to the poetry collection describing how Plath had “never scrapped any of her poetic efforts,” even if they weren’t all masterpieces. He wrote:

“Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity. So this book contains not merely what verse she saved, but—after 1956—all she wrote.”

Also up for auction is Plath’s Massachusetts driver’s license from 1958, at which time she went by the name Sylvia P. Hughes. Bidding for the license will begin at $8000.

Plath's driver's license
Nate D. Sanders Auctions
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Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0
New 'Eye Language' Lets Paralyzed People Communicate More Easily
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0

The invention of sign language proved you don't need to vocalize to use complex language face to face. Now, a group of designers has shown that you don't even need control of your hands: Their new type of language for paralyzed people relies entirely on the eyes.

As AdAge reports, "Blink to Speak" was created by the design agency TBWA/India for the NeuroGen Brain & Spine Institute and the Asha Ek Hope Foundation. The language takes advantage of one of the few motor functions many paralyzed people have at their disposal: eye movement. Designers had a limited number of moves to work with—looking up, down, left, or right; closing one or both eyes—but they figured out how to use these building blocks to create a sophisticated way to get information across. The final product consists of eight alphabets and messages like "get doctor" and "entertainment" meant to facilitate communication between patients and caregivers.

Inside of a language book.
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

This isn't the only tool that allows paralyzed people to "speak" through facial movements, but unlike most other options currently available, Blink to Speak doesn't require any expensive technology. The project's potential impact on the lives of people with paralysis earned it the Health Grand Prix for Good at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity earlier in June.

The groups behind Blink to Speak have produced thousands of print copies of the language guide and have made it available online as an ebook. To learn the language yourself or share it with someone you know, you can download it for free here.

[h/t AdAge]

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