Dick and Jane? I never knew them. When I was learning to read at Public School 102 in Queens, our books were all about Jim and Judy. I liked living in their world and for years I remembered them with fondness, without being able to recall exactly what they did or where they lived.
I now own a copy of Jim and Judy, published by Macmillan in 1939, and its companion pre-primer, Off We Go, which asks children to interpret pictures before learning simple words via simple stories. It presents a world where Father goes to work wearing a hat and suit, Mother wears a dress and sensible shoes and carries a basket on her shopping trips, and the little town boasts individual stores—pharmacy, butcher, greengrocer—and no supermarkets. It is a pleasant enough world, though it lacks the racial and ethnic diversity of today’s textbooks or even of my post-war neighborhood in Queens.
As a first-grader I was excited to move from Off We Go to Jim and Judy. Like the pre-primer, the primer was written by Arthur I. Gates, Miriam Blanton Huber, and Celeste Comegrys Peardon. Whereas the pre-primer had introduced 42 new words (as the back cover reveals), my new book was to add 142 words to my word list.
As I look through Jim and Judy now, I am impressed by the emphasis the book places on creativity. In the first two stories, the twins make birthday presents for each other. Jim and Father construct a toy farm for Judy out of wood, after much sawing and painting. Meanwhile, Mother and Judy plan to surprise Jim by building a wagon for his birthday. Mother is not afraid to wield a hammer, and Judy shows herself to be adept at painting. No one rushes to a catalog or a store to buy the latest fad; instead, the twins, supervised by their parents, make presents for each other in an outburst of creativity, affection, and fluid gender roles.
In “Fun on the Farm,” the twins, along with Tags and Twinkle, their dog and a newly acquired cat, take the train to a farm where they visit the cows, hens, and roosters, while encountering a debate among the animals as to which is the biggest animal on the farm. The big black rooster boasts, “I am the biggest animal on the farm, for I have been to the city!” The farmer then narrates to the twins “The Story of the Black Rooster,” wherein the chickens are deliberately and the rooster accidentally sent to the city. The chickens are happy in the city, and the rooster is happy to return to the farm. These related stories reinforce the theme of belonging. Jim and Judy belong to a family, as do the rooster and chickens. I was to acquire more information about farming in later grades at Public School 102; we learned to appreciate where our food came from.
In the section titled “We Go to School” the twins enter first grade. Their classroom has a pet rabbit, and the children build the animal a little blue house. The students even build a play house for themselves, an impressive feat. When Miss White states that a little boy and girl should be living in the play house, Jim offers to make up a story. Miss White and the children want the story to contain a dog, a cat, a rooster, a hen, a rabbit, and a horse. Jim complies: “I will put a dog, a cat, a rooster, a hen, a rabbit, and a horse in the story.” Again, the children in Jim and Judy were asked to use their creative impulses, and by implication so were we, the little girls and boys reading aloud in the large classroom at P.S. 102 with its tall windows. Jim’s story, “The Story of the Little White House,” completes Jim and Judy and does, in fact, contain all of the required characters, animal, fowl, and human.
The world of Jim and Judy was a placid world, a world that emphasized building things and using a child’s imagination. It lacked racial and ethnic diversity. It lacked generational diversity—no grandparents, uncles, aunts, or cousins visit Jim and Judy. Yet, for a time at least, I was happy to live there. It was sunnier than my neighborhood, and prettier, and the air was fresher, though I couldn’t articulate those opinions. It just felt good.