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See Dick, See Jane, See Spot Run Again : Fullerton Library exhibit provides a rare opportunity to get reacquainted with our childhood friends.

October 07, 1994|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sure, there's Kukla, Fran and Ollie; Hopalong; Annette, and the Beav. If you're a baby boomer, those names are guaranteed to conjure up pleas ant childhood memories.

Then there's Dick and Jane.

Nothing quite evokes those simple, carefree days of youth as much as the young brother and sister who helped teach several generations of Americans to read.

Brown-haired Dick, the older brother, often wore short pants and a striped T-shirt. His sister Jane had golden brown hair and wore a little school dress that tied in the back with a bow. Then there was baby sister Sally, all blond curls and a button nose, who always had her teddy bear Tim in tow.

And let's don't forget the children's playful kitten Puff and their legendary dog Spot.

They all lived in a mystically happy town that was all white picket fences and friendly faces: Clean. Wholesome. Comfortably middle class. It was a traditional white America kind of place where Dad went to work, Mom stayed home, and the kids played. Oh, how they played.

See Dick. See Dick run. See Jane. See Jane run. See Puff play with the ball. See Spot jump.

If you learned to read with Dick and Jane, it's doubtful they've strayed too far from memory. But the Fullerton Public Library is providing a golden opportunity to get reacquainted with those kids with the penchant for one-syllable words.

Beginning Monday and running through Dec. 10, "The Story of Dick and Jane" will chronicle the publishing history and cultural impact of the classic learn-to-read series that came under attack in the '60s when minority groups complained that they were too ethnocentric and women's groups accused them of sex stereotyping.

The exhibit includes dozens of books and representative blowups of color illustrations spanning the 35 years "Dick and Jane" books were published. Because the books were updated every decade, the illustrations reflect the dramatic changes in American life--from wringer washing machines and cars with running boards to TVs and tail fins.

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Visitors to the display will be greeted by life-sized cutouts of Dick, Jane and Sally accompanied by--natch--a white picket fence.

The exhibit, sponsored by the Friends of the Fullerton Public Library, is on loan from the Richmond, Va., Public Library, where it was a hit earlier this year.

Nostalgia, needless to say, will be running high at the library over the next two months.

"There are just millions and millions of children--now adults--who learned to read with those books," said Carolyn Eckert, the library's manager of children's services and herself a 1940s Dick and Jane alum.

Eckert said that when she announced the exhibit during a Fullerton School District principals' meeting, it touched off a round of reminiscences and laughter: "I was really amazed at what kind of a button that pushed for them, so it's a really intrinsic part of childhood for a lot of people out there, and I'm surprised how much of an emotional grab it has for them."

Created by reading consultant Zerna Sharp for Scott, Foresman and Co., a Glenview, Ill., textbook publisher, the "Dick and Jane" series was introduced nearly 65 years ago as an alternative to the phonics method of teaching children to read. It uses the "look-say" method, in which simple words are repeated over and over until they are learned.

"Dick and Jane," the first title published in 1930, is a pre-primer: the simplest of introductory readers. "Fun with Dick and Jane"--a primer offering basic story lines with longer sentences and more vocabulary--arrived in 1940.

Between 1930 and 1965, 56 different "Dick and Jane" readers were published, in addition to "Dick and Jane" health and personal development books, activity work books (the "Think and Do" books) and teachers editions.

There was even a Roman Catholic edition, which included religious references in the pictures such as a nun playing the piano.

By 1960, an estimated 85% of American school systems were using the books. They also were used in Canada, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand and on U.S. military bases around the world.

"I would compare it in its time to the McGuffey Reader series of the 19th Century," said Carolyn Johnson, retired Fullerton Public Library director and an authority on children's literature.

Johnson, who helped set up the exhibit, said the concept of reading was introduced in the pre-primer. The children would be shown "running, riding tricycles, doing something and they would say something like, 'Look, look. See Dick run.' "

Adults may laugh at the simplicity of the introductory books, "but the children loved the stories," said Vi Johnson, a retired Fullerton first-grade teacher who began using "Dick and Jane" in her classroom in 1952.

In one story, baby Sally holds her teddy bear up to a drinking fountain, and when the bear's nose gets too close to the fountain, she squirts her brother and sister. Such gentle humor was common. "It was things the children could identify with," Vi Johnson said.

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