The creator of Dick and Jane and their foolish dog Spot has just died, at 82. Her name was Elizabeth Rider Montgomery Julesberg, and I must say, this is the first I knew that she ever existed.
I was too early to be one of the 20 million children who learned to read with her primers, which began in 1940 with "We Look and See." But surely my kids had them, and I may even have read such a book aloud to them, along with "Yertle the Turtle" and other Seuss books.
If so, I don't remember it. Dick and Jane are so profoundly embedded in the American consciousness that it is hard to believe they were ever anything more than a concept. We had the Dick and Jane jokes, the "Executive Coloring Book" and others that showed their stylistic influence, even a movie called "Fun With Dick and Jane," starring Jane Fonda (who is nothing at all like the original Jane). Dick and Jane came to stand for a way of life, suburban and neat and sublimely uncomplicated.
Suspiciously uncomplicated, in fact. Practically the only toy they had was a ball. They didn't even have last names.
But they were real, all right. In the '60s they became controversial, like everything else. Somebody said they were too WASPish. Somebody wanted to know why they didn't have any black friends. Somebody felt that Jane and little sister Sally needed to have their consciousness raised. I am not sure what came of these protests, but I trust the books weren't taken off the shelves.
Elizabeth Julesberg was teaching first grade in Los Angeles when she decided she was "horrified at the available reading books" and started writing her own.
"I knew nothing about writing," she said once, "but I knew children needed books they could get interested in, not those dull things they handed out."
Well, I don't know about that. The first book I read was "The Little Gingerbread Boy," and it was pretty interesting.
It was kind of hard, though. You wouldn't find any three-syllable words like "gingerbread" in Dick and Jane.
Still, the Julesberg books had their literary complexities. The narrative could jump from the vocative case of "See Spot Run," directed at the reader, to "Run, Spot, Run!" addressed to the dog itself. This shift in point of view helped to involve the reader in the action, considerably heightening the suspense. The device has been much imitated by avant-garde writers, notably Manuel Puig and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
On the strength of her sensationally popular efforts, Julesberg got a long-term contract with Scott, Foresman publishers and turned out more than 70 books and plays, including biographies of Henry Ford and Dag Hammarskjold and some adventure novels. She moved to Seattle in 1946 and wrote about the Northwest. She died in Seattle, leaving her husband Arthur, two children, a stepdaughter and eight grandchildren.
No doubt the grandchildren will grow up and have children of their own, and those children themselves will turn into parents. But Dick and Jane will continue to romp on their sunlit sidewalk like those people on the Grecian urn, forever playing, forever young, oblivious to the millions they teach.