An Invitation to Dick and Jane Readers and Teachers

An Invitation to Dick and Jane Readers and Teachers 

Posted by Dorothy Lander 




Image Source: Fun with Dick and Jane: A Commemorative Collection of Stories (San Franciso: Collins Publishers, 1996) 

The story “A Doll for Jane” from the 1950s reader concludes a sequence in which Father, Mother, and the postman all deliver a wished-for doll to Jane on her birthday. 

If you grew up in North America between the 1950s and 1970s, you may very well have learned to read from Dick and Jane readers. And if you were an elementary school teacher, did you use these readers to help children learn to read? 

Dorothy met Texan-born multi-disciplinary artist Bonnie Baxter, who has had a studio in Val-David, Québec since 1972, when she was seeking artist-participants for the Montreal Whistlestop in 2009. As Dick and Jane were Dorothy’s introduction to learning to read in the 1950s, Dorothy was interested in Bonnie Baxter’s series Jane’s Journey, which Bonnie acknowledges has become “every Jane” but came out of the imagery of those early childhood readers. Bonnie wasn’t able to come to the Montreal Whistlestop but we have been sharing our “every Jane” experiences ever since.  Visit Bonnie’s home page to see some of the images of Jane’s Journey: 

As Christine Unger writes in the catalogue introduction to Bonnie Baxter’s series Jane’s Journey, it was: 

engendered by a renewed connection with the imagery of the Dick and Jane series of early childhood readers. So many of us learned our first lessons from Dick and Jane readers, readers that taught us our place in the world in the simplest, most redundant language possible. In brightly colored, hypnotic repetition, the world-view of Dick and Jane’s America was imprinted onto our psyches more convincingly, more ineradicably, than any religious doctrine. The perfect suburban family unit, Mother, Father, Dick and Jane and Spot, in a perfect paternal hierarchy ensconced in the perfect little white picket fenced household. The great dumbing/numbing down of America (in which I include Canada) held sway from the 1930s to the mid-70s. 

Bonnie Baxter’s exhibitions to date include: 

Jane aux jardin delices, Centre cultural, Val-David, Quebec 

L’Amerique de Jane, Division Gallery, Montréal 

Jane’s Journey, University of Sherbrooke Gallery 

Paris Texas, Angell gallery, Toronto 

China Jane, TBA 

Jane’s Journey 

The next catalogue in Jane’s Journey will be in Toronto from Jan 20 to Feb 26, 2011 and this is where you come in.
The first two catalogues represented different chapters and locations in Jane’s Journey. (Val-David, America,The Journey, Paris, Texas, China).
Bonnie would like to vary the texture of this upcoming catalogue by adding reminiscences and reflections of Dick and Jane readers — like YOU! 

If you choose to contribute to Bonnie Baxter’s Toronto exhibition of Jane’s Journey with your reminiscences and reflections as reader and/or teacher — supported by images, drawing, poetic expressions — please respond to this posting in the COMMENT field and/or send your contributions directly to Dorothy Lander. Dorothy will compose an interweave of Dick and Jane readers’
and teachers’ responses for Bonnie’s Toronto exhibition, drawn from all the responses (
As a guide, I insert an overview of Bonnie’s project, again drawn from Christine Unger’s catalogue introduction: 

Other artists have taken on the subject of ‘Jane’ exposing her sexist representation and the pervasive bureaucratic and authoritarian impositions she excuses. Bonnie’s ‘Jane’ has moved far beyond a simple gendered reaction to a childhood reader. ‘Jane’ is on a journey. Jane’s Journey rings like an echo at the back of the head, a thought you can’t quite formulate, an idea that sits at the tip of your tongue and then … There is no simple statement here about gender and identity. Life is layered and complex and defies our expectations—it is by definition, a symptom of change. The definition of ‘Jane’, is a living one, something new for every generation and every individual. 

In his poem First Reader recent US poet laureate Billy Collins tells us that Dick and Jane were “the boy and girl who began fiction” for him.  Were Dick and Jane your first experience of fiction?  The last line of Collins’ poem is: “We were forgetting how to look, learning how to read.” How does this resonate with your experience?  (in Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems; Random House, 2002) 

As a testing ground for this global invitation, I asked my older sister June for her reminiscences and reflections. And in order not to explicitly invite responses focused on the sexist, racist, classist and other ideological representations, I also asked her if there were any positive values from the Dick and Jane readers that she could identify.  Here is June’s immediate email response, which I include as a pointer to any positive traces that you too recall as a Dick and Jane reader and/or teacher. 

I remember my first day at school and being given my Dick and Jane book and being introduced to Dick — picture on the first page with his name under it.  That was probably my only lesson that day in an 8-grade school.  There was a positive lesson in the book:  Sally was the baby but she was the only one in the family who could get under a chair. 

I suppose now a book with a family with a mother and a father and 3 children all in the same house wouldn’t be considered positive?  I know Sally was blond and cute but I thought Jane had brown hair. 

I barely remember Sally though the non-humans Spot and Puff are quite vivid. Perhaps kindness to animals and the benefits of living with other species would be the positive values that I would take from my earliest reading experience in a school setting.  And I would have to say my lifelong love of reading began with Dick and Jane, alongside my lifelong love of dolls and fascination with representations of girls and and women.
I hope to hear from you ( 

Please do add any more famous Janes to Christine Unger’s list below.  I’ll begin by adding Janey Canuck, the heroine in Emily Murphy’s 1910 novels, which popularized Canuck as slang for Canadian, and along with her author became iconic of Canadian women being named as Persons (see Jennifer Henderson, Topia, 2005, “How Janey Canuck Became a Person”: 


Janey Canuck, pen name for Emily Murphy 

Courtesy of National Library of Canada 

The State of “Jane” 

by Christine Unger 

Jane, Jane, sweet baby Jane, Lady Jane Grey, Jane Austen, Jane Eyre, Calamity Jane, Dick and Jane, Tarzan’s Jane, Jane Seymour (3rd wife of King Henry the VIII), Jane Seymour the actress, Jane Wyman, Jane Russell, Jayne Mansfield, Jane Goodall, Jane Fonda, Plain Jane and of course, Jane Doe — there is probably no other name in western culture that resonates so thoroughly through the female psyche even though, or maybe because, it’s popularity has suffered a steady drop since the early 1960s. 

Jane’s Journey traces a parallel autobiography of Bonnie Baxter herself. Bonnie steps outside of herself and slightly to one side. Using herself as a model with her partner Michel Beaudry behind the camera, Bonnie allows ‘Jane’ to revisit her private geography-the homes and roads of her past, from Texas where she grew up as a child, to France and Italy where she broke open her American blinders, to California (her mother’s final home), and Val-David, Québec where she renews and recreates herself on a daily basis. The powerful imagery of Jane is both highly personal and profoundly embracing of the human condition. It questions the basis of our individuality, but it refuses to entirely reject our need for conformity. Jane’s Journey accepts the contradictory nature of life: the absurd and the beautiful, the tragic and ironic, the private and public, all coexist in a synchronous whole. The most common flower – the plainest Jane – is a unique individual when she travels, when she looks out into the world and asks the question, “who am I?”, and the view of the world itself re-emerges in brighter colours and stronger relief. 

Jane’s averted gaze and that inescapable wig of blond ‘Jane-ness’ give her anonymity and emphasize the severe and edgy psychodrama of her surroundings. Her lonely figure perches at the edge of the unknown—just beyond lie the outer-limits of a surreal and inexplicably unpopulated landscape. Her incongruous presence creates an uncomfortable tension, a forlorn expectation. In Jane’s travels, her strangely artificial-self is the central character in sequence of scenes that feel hauntingly familiar: a postcard image, a movie still, an illustration from a book.  Yet, in every instance she is inexplicably alone and that vague familiarity only serves to emphasize the iconic nature of her presence and tickle our sense of memory with a feeling of déjà vu. 

There is, sometimes, one other presence, though not a human one. In earlier series, Bonnie, incorporated the presence of a small toy Chihuahua she calls chi-chi-doggie into her work. The Chi-chi doggie played the role of trickster or shamanic guide in Bonnie’s process. In Jane’s Journey, a great wolfhound, Bonnie’s true-life canine companion, Lupe, often accompanies Jane. Her larger than life, yet oh-so-gentle demeanor and stance, suggest that the scenes we are witnessing are somehow supernatural, a place as much a part of the past or the future as of a captured-present. Her mute existence acts as benevolent spirit rather than guide or talisman: a constant but temperate reminder that the limits of nature always stand guard at the edges of imagination. 

Jane/Bonnie wanders in the idyllic hills of Italy—visiting old homes and old haunts, she looks out at the wondrous manmade achievement of the Eiffel Tower, locates herself on Highway 66, rests at the edge of the grand canyon (no country for old women), visits a parental home bathed in the hip, hard light of Mulholland Drive-like, California suburbs; she sits at the edge of a great ocean, solitary but for circling birds; stands queen like at the edge of a Narnia-esque winter landscape… Everywhere Jane/Bonnie goes, she seems to ask, what is me and what is “she”. 

The imagery of Jane’s Journey has a fairytale resonance-simultaneously rich with irony and humor in its individualistic detail and starkly archetypal in its anonymity. It’s compositional subtext of geometric supremacy saturated in the colour schemes of a de Chirico or Diebenkorn, supply these oddly depopulated travel-scapes, with eerie significance. They transcend ‘Jane’ and reach toward ‘Jainism’ searching for spiritual independence, for a state of equanimity. Bonnie Baxter’s ‘Jane’ hovers dramatically and poignantly between the requirements of the present and the desire for eternity.

~ by artpoped on August 14, 2010.

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