Dick, Jane and Sally, along with their parents and pets, are the stars of a sprawling new exhibition highlighting the classic “Dick and Jane” book series that helped multiple 20th century generations learn to read.
Yvonne Johnson, a longtime Sycamore educator who holds two degrees from NIU, including a 1960 master’s in Elementary Education, graciously and generously donated her vast collection of the famous and influential books to the Blackwell.
“We want to put out as many of the books as we can, and we tried to open up as many as we could,” says Steve Builta, director of Technology Innovation and Learning Services in College of Education Technology Services. “People will remember the pictures.”
Rich Casey, instructional designer in the Learning Center, heard of the opportunity from Cindy Ditzler and Lynne M. Thomas of the NIU Libraries. With the help of the NIU Foundation, the gift was completed in November 2015.
Casey and Ditzler soon visited Johnson in her Sycamore home.
Johnson taught in a one-room school for two years after earning her NIU bachelor’s degree in Home Economics Education in 1951.
Her career in Sycamore’s District 427 began in 1953, when she joined the staff at West Elementary School. She closed the book on her career 58 years later, and in 2013 was inducted to the Sycamore High School Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame.
“She showed us the collection, and I was amazed. I was thrilled,” Casey says. “I’m hoping to hear people say, ‘I remember that story.’ I’m hoping we’ve done some justice to it.”
Builta and Casey have accomplished just that, displaying books, framed images and enlarged prints throughout their facility in the lower level of Gabel Hall.
One glass case shows pages from Dick and Jane stories side-by-side with nearly identical words and illustrations of African-American siblings Mike and Pam – their family arrived in the 1960s amid the civil rights movement – or within religious school contexts.
Many cases are dressed with objects that vividly evoke the period of the books’ greatest popularity: wood clothespins, a rolling pin, a mop, an iron, a game of jacks, stuffed dolls, a baseball glove, a toy airplane.
“Frankly, ‘Dick and Jane’ is a real part of pop culture,” Builta says, “and this really is about bringing back some memories for some folks. ‘Reminisce’ is a great word. We’re giving people an opportunity to see this again.”
“Dick and Jane” was the creation of Zerna Sharp, a reading consultant one-time kindergarten teacher who called the main characters “my children.”
According to a 1994 article in the Chicago Tribune:
It was in the late 1920s that Sharp, who died in 1981 at age 91, came up with the concept of an illustrated primer with simple text and repeated words mimicking the speech patterns of her young students.
Sharp had difficulty at first convincing Scott, Foresman’s editors to abandon the more stilted reading books of the era, most of which lacked illustrations. But when a University of Chicago authority on education, William S. Gray, endorsed her methods, the publisher embraced her “picture-story” method.
“She heard kids talking the way Dick and Jane would – ‘Look! Look! Look!’ – and thought that maybe the dialogue should reflect that kind of language,” Casey says.
“With the illustrations, she thought that maybe those would help kids understand what they were reading,” he adds. “There were illustrated primers, such as the New England Primer, but the difference was having the images mirror the action.”
“ ‘Dick and Jane’ were the first set of books that really utilized that concept,” Builta says.
Regardless of the affection and nostalgia held by many 20th century children, however, the “Dick and Jane” books were not universally beloved. Legendary author Dr. Seuss, for example, said in 1983 that his “The Cat in the Hat” was “the book I’m proudest of because it had something to do with the death of the Dick and Jane primers.”
And although Casey was never a fan himself, he will acknowledge that the series made a huge impact on baby boomers, their parents and their children.
“Personally, I think that kids learned how to read in spite of ‘Dick and Jane.’ Our nuns were very big on phonics. I remember being in second-grade and trying to sound out ‘refrigerator,’ ” he says. “Nonetheless, ‘Dick and Jane’ was very successful.”
The Learning Center is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday. For more information, call (815) 753-1241 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.