To the Editors:

In 1969, California adopted a new line of textbooks for use throughout the state for children four to eight years old.1 The major line of first-grade texts is the Harper & Row Basic Reading Program. During the fall of 1970, 376,500 students will enroll in the first grade in the California public schools,2 and most of them will now be taught to read from these books. I would like to examine in this letter the first-grade readers from this series designed for use in “usual” classrooms3—not to judge whether they will teach “reading skills” but to show the implications of their rhetoric. These seem to me alarming.

The first observation to be made about the Harper & Row readers is something we all had realized about Dick and Jane in the even more popular Scott Foresman readers: once you start them, there is no escape. That is, the first book is about Janet and Mark and so are the second and the third. Janet and Mark and their ever-patient Mother and Daddy become the first grader’s Everyman. There is only one world in these books—the world of Janet and Mark.

There are no extremes in this recurring world. The rhetoric is clear: a bland world is a good world. The attitudes of all characters are uniform; no one deviates from them. The same kinds of events recur regularly, and they never provoke criticism.

Janet and Mark live in a plain house in a plain suburb.4 They go to the playground,5 they go on a picnic,6 they visit grandma,7 they own a dog.8 They buy shoes in a building conveniently named “Shoe Store,”9 and they give to the Red Cross.10 Mother wears clothing of another era. She still wears gloves to town11 and a dress on a picnic.12 (On one occasion she does don knee-length shorts.13 While it could be noted that she was at a swimming pool at that time, still we might generally agree that it represents an improvement over the skirt and blouse she wore in the speedboat.)14

In keeping with modern trends, Janet and Mark have friends of different races. Negro children are easily recognizable in the playground.15 Mark’s friend David is clearly dark16 but Janet still cheers the cowboy over the Indian, and it becomes evident that face colors could be changed indiscriminately without affecting the stories.17 Indeed, in one unforgettable instance a child changes color with just a flip of the page.18 While this can be passed off as simple inefficiency on the part of artist or printer, it may well be a reflection of the books’ viewpoint.

The difficulty with this description of a world lies in its omissions. Janet and Mark never talk about school, paint pictures, take music lessons, write verse, or wonder about a God. There are no crises; their parents do not divorce, their grandmother does not move in, they do not wear glasses, their dog never gets pregnant, they’re never embarrassed or ashamed.

They learn to behave in this way from their parents, who never quarrel, espouse political ideals, engage in artistic activities, hire baby-sitters, get sick, display mutual affection, or—most depressing of all—speak to each other. In 410 pages, Daddy and Mother say only two lines to one another: “I want a speedboat ride, Daddy,”19 and “Look in the box, Mother,”20

The language of the reader steadily implies that there is only one sort of experience for all people, as is demonstrated clearly in Mother’s speech when she talks of Mark’s birthday party: “This is what he wants…and this is what all boys want.”21 And again, when she describes the food for the party: “Just what all boys like! Just what all boys want!”22

Mother’s chief occupation, it is clear from the pictures, is washing dishes, cooking, sewing, ironing, and wearing aprons. (There are eighteen stories featuring women in the home; the woman wears an apron in twelve of them.)23 Daddy’s chief occupation is coming home. Daddy is never seen wiping away Janet’s tears or helping Mark clean his room; he plays ball with Mark.24 Mother never goes to work or drives the car; she helps Janet make a cake.25

Janet and Mark continue this dramatization of sexual roles. The story of Janet’s new skates illustrates the point clearly: Janet tries on the skates and falls.

“Mark! Janet!” said Mother.

“What is going on here?”

“She cannot skate,” said Mark.

“I can help her.

I want to help her.

Look at her, Mother.

Just look at her.

She is just like a girl.

She gives up.”

Mother forces Janet to try again.

“Now you see,” said Mark.

“Now you can skate.

But just with me to help you.”26

Janet never makes a similar remark to Mark. The indoctrination of Janet, and through her the children of California is clear.

Companion stories, featuring each child separately, continue the same viewpoint. Mark shows Janet his toys: parachute, rocket, space suit, helmet, gloves and boots. He declares himself Mark the astronaut.27 Then it is Janet’s turn. She shows her toys: playhouse, chairs, curtains, dolls, buggy, doll bed, dishes.28

Within the text a “Just for Fun” section features animal stories. Even here, the text carefully follows along the same lines. Mother no longer looks like Jane Wyatt on “Father Knows Best.” Now she is clearly a bear. But she is still wearing an apron and still drying dishes.29 Little Bear, given the pronoun “he,” is a jolly sort, who spends “his” story looking for fun.30 Little Frog, given the pronoun “she,” sits on a rock asking people what to do.31

Certainly there are those who would. accept the tradition which requires Janet to run from Mark’s grass snake.32 What is to be criticized is the lack of options. Janet is never a potential artist, senator, scientist. Mark never will be an actor, professor, gourment. And Janet and Mark, like death and taxes, are with us always, and always they act the same confining parts.

Janet and Mark are inveterate consumers. American business would be proud of them. The value of acquiring objects is illustrated in each of the preprimers, but it is the primer Around the Corner that most exactly demonstrates the value.

On page 29, Janet and Mark find a dime and reach one of the emotional climaxes of the book by quarreling over it. Mother, rather than reprimanding them, divides it, giving each a nickel. Janet’s instant comment is: “Now we can get something.” They leave immediately.33

On page 41, Mrs. Long brings skates for Janet. Mark’s first observation is, “What do I get?”34

On page 67, Janet expresses a desire to do something exciting. Mother’s solution is to buy T-shirts and earrings.35

The consumer impulse reaches its height on page 75 when Mark finds a pigeon. His friend David offers to buy it.

“Will you give him to me?

Will you give him to me for a nickel?”

Mark could conceivably give several replies at this point: you may have this pigeon as a present; you may have the pigeon if you will care for it; we must let the pigeon go free, etc. The reply given illustrates the viewpoint expressed in the book:

“For a nickel!” said Mark.

“What good is a nickel?…

You can have my pigeon for a dime.”36

Notice that Mark is not selfish. Rather, both Mark and David are careful operators in a consumer society.

Janet’s role as a consumer is similar. “I am going to have a birthday,” she says. “You can get something for me.” Daddy’s reply?

“Good for you,” said Daddy.

“Look out for yourself, Janet.”37

It is important to be aware of the dangers presented by rhetoric encouraging cultural uniformity. The most pointed warning about these books is to be found in the text itself. Laid out clearly, for all to see, is the deadly implication of the first-grade reader:

“What can I be, Mother?” said Little Lamb.

“I want to be something new.”

“What can you be?” said her mother.

“Someday you will be a sheep. A sheep…just like me.”

Little Lamb ran up and down in the green meadow.

Little Lamb was happy.38

Virginia Kidd

Department of Speech-Communication

Sacramento State College


This Issue

September 3, 1970