"Dick and Jane and Nothing in Between: Representation and the American Family" (Dana Teach)
An Introduction to Dick and Jane Books
Dick and Jane, originally published between 1930 and 1965, is a series of books created to teach children how to read based on a “look-say” method of reading. The series focuses on two elementary-aged children (Dick and Jane), as well as their younger sister Sally, their parents Mother and Father, and their pet, Spot. These books were categorized based on a grade-level reading difficulty, and were taught widely throughout the American education system.
Though extremely simple by design—“every page contained one—and only one—new word that the reader hadn’t yet seen in any previous Dick and Jane collections”—these books were staples of the American education system. Dick and Jane books spanned the 1st through 9th grade reading level, with 80% of first grade students reading them in the 1950s. Though the last Dick and Jane reader was published in 1965, the series continued to be taught in various degrees throughout the 70s before its eventual decline in popularity in the 80s. As is clear, the series held significant importance within the American education system and its impact extended beyond education into the social norms of American society.
Impact on American Education and Society
The impacts of Dick and Jane books are far-reaching and vast, generating visible influence over educational practices, and underlying influences to racial and ethnic representation, understandings of gender roles, class consciousness, and constructions of other social norms. Notably, Dick and Jane books came under fire for the “look-say” method of reading instruction, with neuropathologists such as Dr. Samuel T. Orton linking the method to reading disabilities and other critics condemning the method’s lack of phonetic learning. Despite these criticisms, the Dick and Jane series remained a central component of American education for nearly half a century.
Outside of the direct impact on educational practices, the Dick and Jane novels held profound weight in the social constructions of American society. Notably, the series centered on a starkly hegemonic family—white, suburban, nuclear, and middle-class—with little to no representation of other types of families or lifestyles (more on this later). Evidently, these readers attempted to do more than impart the ability to read; moreso, Dick and Jane books attempted to impart a set of prescribed and hegemonic values to a vast audience of school-aged American children.
Based on the content and illustrations of the readers, school children were essentially indoctrinated into white and heteropatriarchal modes of thinking. This is clear in the gender dynamics within the family of Dick and Jane. The lack of personal identification of the two parents (simply named Mother and Father, without first or last names) reinforces their position not in relation to their own children or family but as symbolic standards of the parental composition of the American family. Specifically, their simplistic representation perpetuates the necessity of a mother-father parental composition, with the Mother and Father engaged in a strictly heterosexual marriage. All other types of family structures (single parents, couples of the same gender, parents who are not legally married, and other non-hegemonic formations of family) did not have a place in the Dick and Jane family and thus, by extension, did not have a place in the contemporary American family.
Further, the adjectives and roles associated with Mother and Father reinforced traditional gender norms that rendered men as active and women as passive, men as strong and women as weak, and men as breadwinners and women as domestic workers. Father is typically depicted in a suit and tie, or otherwise playing in casual clothing with Dick. Mother is typically depicted in a dress or a skirt, and is often lounging or completing housework with Sally and Jane beside her.
With these depictions, a hierarchical structure is demonstrated, with Father at the top as the breadwinner and white-collar worker, Mother under him as the accessible and domestic housewife, and the children as developing versions of these roles (with Dick often emulating or imitating Father, and Sally/Jane associated with and linked to Mother). Through these depictions, a familial structure based on heteropatriarchy and traditional gender roles is established and elevated for the readers of Dick and Jane.
Race was another central (though intentionally invisible) aspect of the Dick and Jane series for much of its publication. The vast majority of the series only depicts Dick and Jane’s family life, where each member of the family is white. With the series of books working to establish a set of American values and morals in tandem with its goal in teaching children to read, it seems evident that the unspoken whiteness of the series worked to position whiteness as the normative, valued, and overall standard of American identity. Whiteness was central to Dick and Jane, and yet the series’s resistance to acknowledging such whiteness (through comparison to other racial identities) illuminates the power of invisible whiteness.
It isn’t until 1965 (the last year of the creation of new Dick and Jane books) that characters of color appear in the series. This follows the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and seems a direct attempt to alleviate the series’s prominent whiteness after an era that brought racial awareness to the forefront of the American consciousness. Consequently, the series introduced a new family that essentially mirrored the family of Dick and Jane: a family composed of Father, Mother, and their three children (Mike, Pam, and Penny). There were slight differences between the two families: Pam and Penny were twins instead of different ages, the new family’s relatives lived in the city rather than in the suburbs, and, most notably, the new family were African American. Away I go, said Father.
Despite these differences, the two families were essentially similar, with the new family consisting of a working Father, a domestic Mother, smiling children, and those great American family values that the original family emulated. Nothing about the family structure (the traditional gender roles, the necessity of a mother and father as the heads of the family, the correct development of “male” traits by Mike and “female” traits by Pam and Penny) differed from the family of Dick and Jane; rather, the only substantial difference between the two families was a difference in skin color.
Critical Implications and The Bluest Eye
As is clear, the Dick and Jane series held significant cultural relevance throughout most of the 20th century, promoting traditional, white, and heteropatriarchal values from the 1930s until the late 70s. It seems no coincidence that the series’s fall in popularity was accompanied by a rise of radical discourse surrounding race and gender during second-wave feminism and the Civil Rights Era. Toni Morrison, famed author and literary critic, incorporated both the popular Dick and Jane series and budding social justice discourse into her first novel The Bluest Eye.
Published in 1970, this novel follows the lives of three young black girls as they navigate a violently racist and sexist world. The focal character of the novel is Pecola Breedlove, a neglected and abused child who fails to make sense of why she is treated so miserably by everyone in the small Ohio town that she lives in. Ultimately, Pecola succumbs to the stifling constraints of her race, age, and gender, descending into madness after being sexually assaulted by her own father and cruelly ridiculed by her society due to her “ugly” and helpless appearance.
Pecola’s story and descent into madness is heavily linked with the themes of the Dick and Jane series. Most explicitly, Morrison begins the novel with a Dick-and-Jane-esque paragraph, using simple and straightforward sentence structures and including the characters Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane to evince the happy, white, suburban lifestyle that the series promotes. This introduction directly contrasts with the cruel and unforgiving circumstances that Pecola endures in a life that is anything but picturesque. Regardless of the contrasting realities of someone like Jane and someone like Pecola, Morrison includes this allusion to the popular book series as the values and standards promoted in the series were the ones that shaped the society that Pecola finds herself in (the 1940’s Midwest). The Dick and Jane primers were nearing the peak of their popularity during this time period, and would therefore be majorly influential in the learned behavior and norms of American children.
Pecola certainly internalizes much of the values and standards presented in these books, seen most clearly through her desire and prayer for blue eyes. Morrison writes, “It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different” (46). She follows this with another Dick and Jane reference, using the simple style to establish the overwhelming and repetitive obsession that Pecola possesses: “Pretty eyes. Pretty blue eyes. Big blue pretty eyes.”
As Pecola’s obsession illustrates, the blue eyes of the young and pretty Jane served as the standard of beauty for Pecola and other young girls alike. Dick and Jane books were not only the means by which children learned to read; the characters of such readers were established as the standards of American beauty. This was how little boys and girls (no in between!) should look like, dress like, and act like. Blue eyes, blonde hair, fair skin, a doting mother, a dutiful father, a beautiful home, pretty dresses, time to play and relax: none of these things existed in Pecola’s life. Instead, she had dark eyes, dark hair, dark skin, an abused mother, an abusive father, a dirty and neglected apartment, tattered clothes, and constant chores or schoolwork. For Pecola (and real young black children across America, as well as other minority groups), the standards presented in Dick and Jane generate a dangerous and pervasive self-consciousness. This self-consciousness finds fault in the aspects of one’s life that does not align with the picturesque lives of white suburbia and enforces a self-perception rooted in unworthiness and ugliness.
The debilitating effects of this self-consciousness culminates in Pecola’s mental breakdown at the end of the novel, where she convinces herself that she has been granted blue eyes in order to protect herself from the devastating reality of her abandonment at the hands of the other townspeople and her sexual assault at the hands of her father. Pecola’s inability to emulate the perfect life and appearance of someone like Jane ultimately damages her for life, and serves as a representation of the harmful impact that the staunchly white and heteropatriarchal book series had on many marginalized groups of people during the time of its publication.
Progression of Early Childhood Media and Education
Morrison’s novel highlighted the deeply damaging effects of media such as the Dick and Jane series, showcasing how the hegemonic standards imposed throughout the books render young and impressionable children susceptible to a great deal of inner turmoil, self doubt, and lack of self worth. In addition to the “look-say” versus phonics debate mentioned earlier, Morrison’s and other critiques of the type of messaging promoted in the book series led to the Dick and Jane books being replaced by different forms of childhood education materials. Books such as Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat (1957) or One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (1960) have become staples of American education, used to teach young children how to read based on an “...emphasis on natural language patterns...rhyme, rhythm and controlling sentence patterns." These stories tell whimsical tales of crazy creatures and disobedient children, directly contrasting the proper and respectable values that Dick and Jane books worked to promote.
Other popular books used to teach reading comprehension today have a similar focus outside of daily family life and instead focus on either animals/creatures or take place in a supernatural/fantasy setting. Books such as Charlotte’s Web, Where the Wild Things Are, The Magic School Bus, and Junie B. Jones are examples of some of the books taught in early childhood education, all stories that do not necessarily focus on depictions of realistic family dynamics and experiences.
Even so, there still exists a dire lack of diversity in the early childhood media that is created and popularized today. As of 2018, 50% of characters in children's books are white, with less than 25% of characters coming from any other racial background. Animal and other types of creatures make up 27% of characters in children’s books, a higher percentage than all of the non-white characters combined. Further, in 2019, the percentage of white characters dropped to 41%, though these statistics include young adult fiction in addition to children’s books. Though these findings show marked improvement from earlier statistics (93% of characters in children’s books were white in 2012), the vast majority of human characters in 21st century children’s books still mirror the fair-faced beauties of the Dick and Jane novels of the 20th century.
Despite the remaining centrality of whiteness in children’s media, major strides are being made towards promoting diversity through childhood education. Many schools now implement books specifically centered around issues of inclusion. Books such as Happy in Our Skin, It’s Okay to Be Different, and Pink is for Boys are used as educational resources to dismantle harmful racial and gender stereotypes and instead teach acceptance and inclusion to young children.
Other children’s books, such as Hair Love, are used to promote diversity and inclusion in more subtle ways. This book, based on the Oscar-winning short film of the same title, offers insight into the daily life of a family much like Dick and Jane books once did. Yet, this book celebrates the features that make one unique, unlike the prescribed beauty and behavioral standards that the Dick and Jane series imparts.
In today’s world, teachers are finding new ways to foster self-love, acceptance of others, and reading comprehension by engaging with more diverse books in the classroom. By normalizing difference, the children’s books of today are beginning to alleviate the deeply pervasive effects of the hegemonic standards that were established through popular children’s fiction such as Dick and Jane in the 20th century. Though statistics show that we still have a long way to go, the American education system is slowly moving away from a long history of white heteropatriarchal indoctrination through early childhood media.
Morrison’s novel and the history of the Dick and Jane series illustrate a crucial point: representation matters. Let the lessons of the past provide an opportunity to learn a lesson ourselves: standards set in fiction are central to the lived experiences of reality.