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Taking a Trip Back in Time With Dick and Jane

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People looking to stroll down Memory Lane have found that all roads lead to Peoria.

Since February, a museum in that central-Illinois city has showcased a piece of pure Americana: an exhibit of original artwork from the Dick and Jane readers popular from the Depression era through the height of the Vietnam War.

Thanks to the exhibit, Peoria is suddenly a tourist hot spot, particulary for people who live in the Midwest. "Our receptionists have given out directions so many times that they think they're working for A.A.A.,'' joked Kathleen Woith, the public-affairs director at the Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences, the temporary home to the Dick and Jane artwork.

Hundreds of people have made the nostalgic pilgrimage to Peoria, and the enthusiastic response recently prompted the museum to extend the show beyond its planned March closing date to Sept. 5.

Visitors leave the guest book dewy-eyed with remembrances. "It brings back fond memories,'' wrote one visitor. "Reminds me of being a child again,'' another wrote.

Such affection does not surprise Louise McNutt, 79, who edited the series' teacher guidebooks for more than 20 years and read many children's letters to the publisher, the Scott Foresman Company in Glenview, Ill. "Children became very well acquainted with the characters,'' she said. "They became their friends.''

Evolution of Dick and Jane

David Thompson, a Peoria public-television producer, spun off the exhibit from a documentary that he made last year tracing the series' evolution from its 1927 debut to its last edition in 1965.

Simple as the series seems today, its storybook concept and short sentence constructions--"Run, Dick, run''--was radical for the 1920's. Children's books at the time were lengthy texts with few pictures.

Zerna Sharp, a kindergarten teacher in Illinois, recognized that such books bored her students and sold Scott Foresman on a "picture story'' concept.

In the first pre-primers, editors adhered to a rule that only one character spoke per page and that stories ran no more than four pages, Ms. McNutt said.

Writers mimicked children's speech patterns, and illustrators crafted visual clues to the text.

"It was very bold for the time, and it worked,'' Mr. Thompson said. More than 85 million children read the series, he said.

The editors took great pains to make Dick, Jane, Sally, Mother, and Father look like the perceived image of an average American family, Ms. McNutt said. They had two pets, a dog and a cat. The dog, Spot, appeared with the children in many of the book's illustrations.

And to put the family squarely in the middle class, illustrators copied clothing from the widely popular catalogs of the Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward companies.

Scott Foresman also developed editions for Seventh-day Adventists, French Canadians, and Roman Catholics. The "Cathedral'' edition for Catholics changed the Dick, Jane, and Sally characters to John, Jean, and Judy, the alliteration intended as a reminder of Jesus, Mr. Thompson said.

Beyond Their Time

During the 1960's, the Dick and Jane series was attacked from a variety of fronts. Feminists criticized the portrayal of Mother and Jane, who were often shown doing housework, while minorities disapproved of its homogeneity.

And the series' methodology, while revolutionary in the 1920's, had become out of step with the trend toward teaching reading by using phonics. Education experts criticized the books' vocabulary, saying it limited children.

Editors made some adjustments, but Ms. McNutt said they eventually decided that the Dick and Jane books were a product of their time.

Other children's series have been popular, but none has had the longstanding success of the Dick and Jane books, Ms. McNutt said.

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