Archived Story

‘Dick and Jane’ books taught lessons of life

Published 9:29am Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Column: Tales from Exit 22, by Al Batt

I spoke to more than 800 birders in a lovely auditorium in Ohio.

I told them that I’d learned all I needed to know about birding from reading “Dick and Jane” books while I was in grade school.

Dick, the oldest of the three children featured in the books and who was never called Richard, said, “Look, look. Look up. Look up, up, up.”

That is excellent advice for anyone who wants to see birds. Dick was a little man. Responsible and respectful. A role model. He climbed trees, a great window to nature. Dick found missing pets and toys. Six-year-old Dick, never a bully, shook hands. He never spoke out of turn, and he did his chores without expecting pay.

He was different than some of the other boys who were famous at that time. Lassie’s friend Timmy, who caused his loved ones to say frequently, “What is it, Lassie, is Timmy in trouble?”

Of course, Timmy was in trouble. Timmy was constantly in trouble. He insisted on falling into wells. This forced the quick-witted Lassie, who had no thumbs or cellphone, to seek help. Lassie always came through. Timmy was saved weekly, but not weakly.

Dennis the Menace unintentionally put others in peril. Mr. Wilson, a neighbor to Dennis, was made grumpy by the antics of Dennis. Dennis had a dog, too, good old Ruff.

Dick’s family had a dog. Spot. Spot was a springer spaniel and a friend of all in the family.

Jane was pretty and bright. Her life revolved around Dick’s adventures. That was OK. He was her older brother. To Dick’s credit, he never teased her.

Jane was perky. Jane was the perfect daughter, the perfect younger sister, and the perfect older sister.

Other girls famous at that time were comics strips stars such as Nancy, Little Iodine and Lucy Van Pelt of “Peanuts” fame. These three girls found in the funny papers were basically good, but they had dark sides, or at minimum, they were prankish.

Sally, the baby, was full of energy and unpredictability. She was too young to know the rules, let alone play by them. Dick and Jane were extremely patient with her. When Sally dropped her ice cream cone, an older sibling was there to comfort her.

As mentioned earlier, Spot was the dog. It was often said in the pages of those books, “See Spot run.” Thanks to that instruction, we saw Spot running like the wind in our imaginations. Spot was in more episodes than Dick and Jane’s parents. He was no Lassie, but he reminded us of our pets.

Puff was an orange kitten, intent on making use of each of its nine lives. Puff never clawed furniture or acted aloof. Because of that, even the youngest of children knew that Puff was fictional. There was Tim the teddy bear, who had a nonspeaking role, a welcome confidant for young family members.

Dick and Jane began in 1927. By the 1950s, 80 percent of grade school children in the United States read “Dick and Jane.” The family had no last name, but they represented every boy and girl in my class.

Dick, Jane and Sally shared and practiced the Golden Rule as did the well-behaved children on TV shows like “The Donna Reed Show,” “Father Knows Best” and “Ozzie and Harriet.” It was easy for them, they were fictional characters. Work was important, as was being careful when crossing the street. They had fun. They were happy children.

A “Dick and Jane” book made reading more fun than work. That’s as it should be. The books were short on vocabulary and long on repetition. They reached an audience in a more personal manner than did the earlier McGuffey’s Readers. It’s estimated that at least 120 million copies of McGuffey’s Readers were sold between 1836 and 1960. That is a plethora of textbooks. I never used McGuffey’s Readers, but I’m glad that I knew Dick and Jane. They were friends who made me feel at home and tricked me into learning things for my own good.

The “Dick and Jane” books revolved around home, school and neighborhood.

“Dick and Jane” books lasted until 1970. “Sesame Street” premiered on TV in 1969. Probably just a coincidence.

I’ve had a lifelong love of the printed word. Dick and Jane and the rest certainly fostered that love.

They caused my imagination to dance.

And they taught me to look.

“Look, Spot. Oh, look. Look and see. Oh, see.”

 

Hartland resident Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday and Sunday.