OPINION: See Dick. See Jane. See Phil talk about Dick and Jane

In the still of the night
Hold me darlin’, hold me tight, oh
So real, so right
Lost in the fifties tonight

In the 1998 movie Pleasantville two teenagers are transported back to the 1950s and the black and white world of Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best and Captain Kangaroo.

Canadians and Americans familiar with the era probably learned to read with help from a First Grade primer called, “Growing up with Dick and Jane”.

Dick and Jane and their baby sister Sally, together with Spot the dog and Puff the cat, lived in an idyllic world where night never came, knees were never scraped, parents never yelled, and fun never stopped. Families were happy, always.

Dick and Jane arrived in North American schools during the Great Depression and served as the principal Grade One primer until the 1960s.

Personally, I found the book disappointing. I do, however, clearly remember being required to stand and read from the primer in Grade 1 at Sarnia’s Our Lady of Mercy School in 1953.

My father was a voracious reader and taught me to read by age four. I remember the first book he bought me. It was The Cruel Sea, by Nicholas Monsarrat. The story of the wartime British corvette HMS Compass Rose, published to great acclaim in 1951, was one of my Dad’s favourites.

So reading verses at school such as, “Oh look. See Spot run!” was pretty dull stuff after the adventures of a wartime naval vessel.

For millions of young readers in their formative years, Growing up with Dick and Jane was their introduction to books, and the printed word.

Dick and Jane were born in 1927, created by William Gray and Zema Sharp. The series of books that followed was a classic example of the “look-say” method of teaching then popular. They were filled with bright watercolour illustrations depicting characters in ideal, real-life situations.

The books were praised for teaching responsibility, good manners, and respect for elders, as well as teaching children to read. Dick and Jane were portrayed as role models, deserving of emulation.

It’s estimated 80% of Ontarians learned to read with Dick and Jane primers.

Some of the books could be found in Ontario schools as late as 1973, though already dated by the 1960s, and they were gradually replaced by more modern teaching methods.