Zerna Sharp never had kids of her own, but her children, as she called them—Dick, Jane, and Baby Sally—became American icons as the main characters of schoolbooks used across the nation. If you were in first grade in America between 1930 and 1970, you probably learned to read with Dick and Jane—who reached the height of their popularity in the 1950s.
Born in 1889 in Hillisburg, 50 miles north of Indianapolis, Sharp taught first grade in several small Indiana towns, including La Porte, where she ended up school principal. She eventually left the classroom behind for a job at a Chicago publishing house. Passionate about children’s literacy, Sharp came up with the idea for the books after sitting on the beach on the south side of Chicago and listening to children speak to one another. Their single-word structure and repetition (for instance, “Look, look” instead of one word, “Look”) motivated her to create the series. Although she didn’t write or illustrate the books, Sharp was deeply involved in the process and characters, even selecting their clothing styles from the Sears catalog.
“Zerna’s main priority was to find an avenue for kids to know how to read, and to like reading,” says Mitzi Shepard, Sharp’s cousin. “She broke through a barrier and made learning accessible and fun.”
Sharp’s books were innovative, but not without controversy. Some discredited Dick and Jane because of their white suburban stereotypes and subordinate female roles. Sharp’s rebuttal: “It never bothered the children. That’s all an adult’s viewpoint.”
Patricia Payne, director of the Racial Equity Office at Indianapolis Public Schools and member of the Board of Trustees at the Indianapolis Public Library, says children do recognize differences and disparities. “That probably was the thinking in the 1930s and ’40s, but that wasn’t true of children then either, because children do notice differences. They notice color and they notice who gets privilege.”
If she had ever used the books for teaching purposes, says Payne, she would have made sure to incorporate others that reflected the diverse children in her classroom.
In 1965, after the Civil Rights movement had swept in a new era and Sharp had retired, a Black family moved in next door to Dick and Jane. The books, as Payne understands them, intended the Black neighbors to have the same values, the same work ethic, and the same material things. “I don’t know about all that,” she says. “They probably had their own values and their own work ethic—which was probably very good and very strong, maybe a little different. But it seems like it was important to the publisher to make them have the same things, and at the time, that was good.”