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Though today the word literacy has developed multiple dimensions and includes the notions of cultural and media literacies, for many people the word literacy still refers to the technical skills of reading and writing: a skill referred to in today’s academic literature as functional literacy. In literature, the teaching of functional literacy has been accomplished not only through ABC books but also with text books, readers, and picture books. Text books and readers have progressed considerably from their early days, when most included the alphabet along with a variety of vocabulary and pronunciation lessons. Today, most include a large selection of stories and other kinds of writing aimed to appeal to a broad range of readers and interests.

The New England Primer (1727) was the first reading primer designed for use in the American Colonies, and remained in use as a textbook for nearly 150 years. It contained the alphabet – with the letter “A” reminding readers of their spiritual identity with the verse “In Adam’s fall, we sinn’d all” – along with a syllabarium, prayers, and a section entitled “The Dutiful Child’s Promises” which included a promise to honor the King.

As America became established as a country in its own right, The New England Primer was gradually replaced by the series known as the McGuffey Reader, which were first published in 1836. Over 120 million copies of McGuffey readers were sold between 1836 and1960. The series is still in print today and reportedly records sales of about 30,000 volumes annually. McGuffey Reades were especially significant to the development of reading instruction because they were among the first American textbooks designed to become progressively more challenging with each volume. Britain had its own equivalent with William Mavor’s and Kate Greenaway’s The English Spelling-Book (1885), which contained lessons progressing from one to four syllable words, along with written stories with morals such as “Whatever you do, do with all your might.” Mavor and Greenaway’s book concludes with four pages of “Moral and Practical Observations” that readers were expected to memorize, a list of homonyms, and a selection of religious poems.

By the middle of the 20th century textbooks had changed immensely, as Open Highways (1967) shows. Including not only short stories by such luminaries as Langston Hughes and Isaac Asimov, the textbook also contained a piece by Bil Kean (of the comic strip Family Circus fame) about television, a Peanuts cartoon by Charles Shulz, and a variety of short stories, picture puzzles, plays, and non-fiction aimed to appeal to a wide range of reading tastes.

The 20th century also saw the development in America of readers in the Dick and Jane series, published from the 1920s through the 1970s, which emphasized repetition and simple language. The New Fun with Dick and Jane (1956) contained stories written by a number of well-known authors of the time, including Gertrude Chandler Warner (better known as the author of The Boxcar Children series), May Hill Arbuthnot, and Eva Knox Evans. While the books were intended to provide entertainment along with reading instruction, they did not include any multicultural characters until 1965.

In direct contrast to (and presumably in competition with) the Dick and Jane readers were the books published in the I Can Read series, which began in 1957. One of the best-known authors in the series was Dr. Seuss, or Theodor Seuss Geisel, whose The Cat in the Hat (1957) and Green Eggs and Ham (1960) are still perennial favorites with children and adults. Known as one of the masters of 20th century nonsense, Seuss wrote Green Eggs and Ham as the result of a bet with his publisher at Random House, Bennett Cerf, who bet Seuss that he could not write a book using only fifty different words. Seuss, of course, won the bet, and Green Eggs and Ham has ranked in the top five of best-selling American children’s books of all time. His characteristic style of illustration, using bright colors, simple lines, and quirky characters does not distract readers from his humorous rhyming text, which in turn helps readers to remember his poems and learn their words.

Another American icon (as Philip Nel calls Dr. Seuss) who published some of his early work in the I Can Read series was Maurice Sendak, one of the most significant illustrators of the 20th century. With text by Else Holmelund Minarik and illustrations by Sendak, the Little Bear books first appeared in 1957. In A Kiss for Little Bear (1968) we can see Sendak’s characteristic use of lines and color; moreover, we see the influence of his Wild Things (he published his Caldecott-winning Where the Wild Things Are in 1963) in the picture that Little Bear draws for Grandmother. Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad are Friends (1970) was another classic story that appeared in the I Can Read series, and Lobel won a Caldecott Honor award for his watercolor illustrations.

Too Many Babas (1979) and Jack Prelutsky’s and Yossi Abolafia’s It’s Snowing! It’s Snowing! (1984) round out these I Can Read books, demonstrating their continued endurance. Croll’s tale provides a story of community, presenting the age-old message of “too many cooks spoiling the broth” re-sculpted into “too many babas”, or grandmothers; her use of simple and pleasing shapes nicely compliment the accessible yet poetic language of the story. Similarly, American Children’s Laureate Jack Prelutsky’s series of poems, with their lilting tones and lively language, are accompanied with Abolafia’s colorful and appealing illustrations.