Happy Birthday Zerna. Happy. Happy. Happy.

Writer and elementary school teacher Zerna Sharp – best known as the mother of the Dick and Jane series of books for beginning readers — was born on August 12, 1889 in Hillisburg, Indiana.

Sharp didn’t write the stories that taught American children how to read from 1930 through the 1960s but she named the characters and selected their clothing – all of which came from the Sears and (Montgomery) Wards catalogues.

The idea for the illustrated readers came while Sharp worked as a reading consultant for publisher Scott Foresman & Company. Previously, she was a first grade teacher and elementary school principal.

In her New York Times obituary, Sharp’s nephew Robert says:

”She used to go down and sit on the beach on the South Side of Chicago and listen to the kids playing. She noticed them saying, ‘Look, look,’ instead of one word, ‘Look.’ That’s how I understand the idea for the books came about.”

Story lines were submitted to Sharp, who chose the ones she liked. She worked with illustrators to produce the series of  primers, which were used in Grade 1 through Grade 9.

Only one new word was introduced on each page and no story introduced more than five new words. The illustrations usually showed the characters engaging in the new word.

Like running, looking or seeing.

From Fun with Dick and Jane: “Dick said, ‘Look, look. Look up. Look up, up, up.’ ”

Besides Dick and Jane, Sharp created Mother, Father, little sister Sally, Puff the cat and the redoubtable Spot the dog, who initially was a cat. Tim the teddy bear was a later addition.

African American characters and characters of other races and cultures were an even later addition – not appearing until 1965.

Sharp dismissed claims that Jane and Dick were stereotypical as “an adult’s viewpoint” that wasn’t an issue for youthful readers.

The Dick and Jane books went out of print during the 1970s but were reissued in 2003, registering brisk sales to nostalgic baby boomers.

Sharp never married and frequently referred to Dick and Jane as her children. She died at a Frankfort Indiana nursing home in 1981 at the age of 91.


Filed under: News

1 Comment »

  1. Ms. Zerna Sharp was never married, a fact noted by you in your interesting commentary. Perhaps she would have been better advised to work at the State Library, as asserted by your esteemed predecessor Milton J. Ferguson:

    “In fact it becomes more evident every day that the library
    is but the waiting room of the marrying parson; and to the executive of the library the wait is not over long. It may be that the library attracts to itself girls of such high quality that the young liochinvars of today in search of assistance in the fight against high prices would be blind indeed if they did not early recognize the surpassing merit of the young woman library assistant. Certainly she has had experience
    in making a little go far.”

    Milton J. Ferguson of Sacramento, State Librarian in the Biennial Report of the Trustees of the California State Library, July 1, 1918 to June 30, 1920, https://archive.org/stream/bilreportof1920unse#page/n1/mode/2up. See, pps. 7-8.

    Comment by Phil Isenberg — 9.04.2014 @ 1:23 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment