Elizabeth Rider Montgomery Julesberg (1902-1985), known professionally as Elizabeth Rider Montgomery, was the co-author of many of the "Dick and Jane" reading primers published from the 1930s through 1970 by educational publisher Scott, Foresman and Company. Montgomery, who wrote primarily for juveniles, contributed to many other textbooks and was the author of more than 70 published books and plays. Raised in the Midwest, she was a longtime resident of Seattle and more than a few of her works featured Northwest themes.
Elizabeth Rider was born on July 12, 1902, to Charles Quantrell Rider and Lulla Tralle Rider in Huaras, Peru, where her father was serving as a missionary. When she was 18 months old, the family relocated to Independence, Missouri. Rider's father deserted the family when she was five, according to her later recollection. (U.S. Census data indicates that Rider's father was still living with his family in 1910. By 1920, Rider's mother is enumerated as divorced.) Her mother supported Elizabeth and her three siblings by working as a dressmaker.
Elizabeth's dreams of training as an artist were curtailed by the family's financial situation and, at her mother's urging, she took a teacher-training class that was offered at her Missouri high school. The class qualified her to teach in Missouri once she had received her high-school diploma. At age 18, she taught multiple grades in a two-room school, a daunting experience she later recalled bitterly. For reasons unclear, she moved to Washington the following year and thereafter taught primary grades, a more felicitous experience for her.
Rider trained as a teacher at Washington State Normal School (now Western Washington University) in Bellingham, graduating with a two-year certificate in 1925. She taught school in Foster (now part of Tukwila), Bellingham, and Aberdeen. She then moved to Los Angeles at her mother's urging. After one term at UCLA, she passed the California teacher's examination. In 1928, she began teaching first grade.
First Writing Efforts
In addition to her work as a teacher, Rider started writing children's stories. On August 15, 1930, Elizabeth Rider married Norman A. Montgomery (1900-1990), a telephone technician whose acquaintance she'd made on a public tennis court. Reluctant to devote the time she and her husband spent together at home to honing her writing abilities, Montgomery took to arriving at school an hour early each day and using the office typewriter to compose articles and stories. She decided what she wanted to write during her hour-long walk to work and was able to continue concentrating even as the quiet school began to fill with her fellow teachers and, eventually, their students. She later explained that writing every day, but only for an hour and with the deadline of classes starting always looming, taught her to work efficiently.
After the birth of her daughter, Janet (b. 1934), Montgomery retired from teaching but continued her writing efforts, using the baby's nap times to compose verse for greeting cards, which she was able to sell. A son, Robin (1939-2015), followed five years later.
Learning to Read
In the earliest decades of the twentieth century, the four major basal readers that were used to teach most American children to read were The New England Primer, Webster's Speller, the McGuffey Readers, and Scott, Foresman's New Basic Reader. Montgomery found these books lacking.
During her years as a first-grade teacher, Montgomery was unable to find basic reading books she felt were both sufficiently simple and captivating enough to engage beginning readers. Montgomery perceived a need for simple books aimed at children who were just beginning to master reading without an adult by their side -- books with few words that gradually built these fledgling readers' reading vocabulary.
In 1936, Montgomery sent the publishing firm of Scott, Foresman and Company an unsolicited submission of three children's stories. One editor there took saw potential in Montgomery's style and, over the next several years, encouraged her efforts. On May 23, 1938, Montgomery signed a contract with Scott, Foresman to produce reading materials for primary grades upon the publisher's request. The contract guaranteed Montgomery a $75 per month retainer and was not restrictive, permitting Montgomery to publish any other writing she desired. The retainer fee enabled Montgomery to hire a weekly housecleaner, giving her more time to write. In addition to the retainer, Montgomery was paid for her work on each book.
The first pre-primer Montgomery helped produce was We Look and See, her first effort in what would become the preferred series of children's reading primers. Montgomery's editor was Zerna Sharp (1889-1981), who conceived of and oversaw the Dick and Jane series but did not write any of the stories.
Montgomery was a staff writer for Scott, Foresman and Company from 1938 to 1963. In addition to We Look and See, she co-authored the readers We Work and Play (1940), We Come and Go (1940), Good Times with Our Friends (1941), Happy Days with Our Friends (1941), Three Friends (1944), Five in the Family (1946), The Girl Next Door (1946), You (1948), Just Like Me (1957), Being Six (1957), Seven or So (1957), Eight to Nine (1957), Going on Ten (1958), and About Yourself (1959). She also co-authored Scott, Foresman's Health Series textbooks.
We Work and Play Together
Montgomery is frequently incorrectly cited as the creator of the Dick and Jane series. She was actually a member of the team that wrote the books. Montgomery corrected this often-repeated misinformation in a 1977 letter to an editor at PTA [Parent Teacher Association] Today:
"It is true that I concocted the original story plots of the Dick and Jane pre-primers, but others -- especially Miss Zerna Sharp, the Scott-Foresman reading editor at the time, played an important part in their production. The statement that I was the creator of Dick and Jane has caused some hard feelings, which I am anxious to dissipate. Before I began writing for Scott-Foresman, Dick and Jane had already made their debut in the first pre-primers published in the United States, in the early 1930s, Dick and Jane and More Dick and Jane. In the 1940 revision of the Scott-Foresman reading program, I took over those two characters, and I made Baby Sally into the chief and most appealing actor in the books. I wrote most of the basic story plots which were used in the Scott-Foresman books for many years" (Elizabeth Rider Montgomery to Carol Ann Bales).
Montgomery changed the focus of the stories from the older siblings, Dick and Jane, to their little sister, who was unnamed when Montgomery began working on the books and whom she christened Sally. She modeled some of Sally's high jinks on the mild and humorous childhood adventures that she had observed in her own daughter, Janet.
Run, Spot, Run!
During the height of their popularity, some 80 percent of American children learned to read with Dick and Jane. Scott, Foresman also produced the Catholic Basic Reader series, a special edition of the Dick and Jane books intended for use in parochial schools.
The number of words increased gradually as children progressed through the series. Montgomery's first book had only 17 words, used repeatedly. The second book added 21 words to the first 17. Only a few words were introduced in each story, and no more than one new word was introduced on any given page.
The books' white suburban children with their intact family of origin, chipper pets, and perfectly manicured home became first ubiquitous and then questioned. Toni Morrison (b. 1931) opened her 1970 novel The Bluest Eye with a section that explores the irony of these actually-far-from-universal characters from a racial perspective. The Dick and Jane series was also criticized for reinforcing gender-role stereotypes.
In 1942, Montgomery published Bonnie's Baby Brother and How He Grew. The book's illustrations were based on photographs of her children. The Montgomery family moved to Seattle in 1946, settling in West Seattle. Montgomery managed to weave together writing and mothering duties. A 1966 Seattle Times article about Two Kinds of Courage, her juvenile novel set at a Snoqualmie Pass ski school, noted that Montgomery "did much of the ground work for the story while waiting for her son's Snoqualmie Pass ski classes to end" ("Snoqualmie Ski Schools ...").
A 1959 article in The Seattle Times described the milieu in which Montgomery lived and worked:
"There is evidence of creativity in every corner of the Montgomerys' charming waterfront home. Mrs. Montgomery's hand-hooked rugs and original water colors add warmth and interest. Since her principal forte is writing (she has published 30 books and seven plays), Mrs. Montgomery's typewriter and stacks of semicompleted manuscripts have a prominent place in the decor. ... Mrs. Montgomery always encourages beginning writers by telling them it took seven years and more rejection slips than she could count before she sold her first manuscript. ... 'Of course,' she added, 'I was trying to break into the most difficult field -- textbook writing'" ("Author and Her Daughter ...").
Montgomery described ways in which her research process dovetailed with parenting in a 1969 Seattle Times article:
"I have learned complete concentration, which enables me to shut out everything but the project on which I am engaged. Also I have learned to skim very rapidly. ... All of my fiction came out of notes in diary form. For instance, on a pack trip to the Olympic Mountains I met a group of ten Girl Scouts. Talking to them was a picnic and I wrote voluminous notes. From there I wrote and sold Three Miles an Hour. A summer as head counselor at a music camp resulted in Second Fiddle Sandra'" ("She Puts the Story ...").
Montgomery published many works of juvenile nonfiction, including several with Northwest themes. These include Lewis and Clark (1966), Chief Seattle (1966), When a Ton of Gold Reached Seattle (1968), Chief Joseph (1969), and When Pioneers Pushed West to Oregon (1969). Her juvenile biographies included Walt Disney (1971), Duke Ellington (1972), and Dag Hammarskjold (1973),among others. In the early 1960s, Montgomery published several plays with Pacific Northwest themes.
Montgomery told The Seattle Times as far back as 1948 that she found the strictures of the Basic Reading books frustrating: "I don't take the same personal pride in them; it's a matter of constant collaboration and you can't write as you want to" ("Children's Writer").
She found more pride and pleasure in a series she wrote without collaborators for a different publisher, McBride, beginning in the 1940s. The books explained the stories behind great inventions, medical discoveries, great books, musical instruments, popular songs, and other topics. "With this McBride series, they are exactly what I wanted to write. One grew out of the other. The first I did was The Story Behind Great Inventions. When I finished, I found in my leftover notes beginnings of several other books" ("Children's Writer").
Montgomery also published juvenile fiction, prompted (she later recounted) by her daughter Janet:
"After I had written texts and nonfiction trade books for years, my daughter begged me to write 'something the kids would like.' She added, 'They only read your books because the teachers tell them to'" ("Answers to Questions Often Asked").
Author Meets Artist
Coincidentally, Eleanor Campbell (1894-1986), who illustrated the Dick and Jane series from 1940 to 1956, also lived in Seattle during portions of her life. (After Campbell left the series, subsequent Dick and Jane artists continued to use her style as a guide.) Born in Philadelphia, Campbell moved with her family to Seattle in 1907. She graduated from Lincoln High School, attended the University of Washington, and later taught there during the early 1920s. Most of her life was spent in Philadelphia, where she worked as a commercial artist. She returned to Seattle in about 1980.
According to Campbell's obituary in The Seattle Times, the two women whose simple words and cherubic illustrations together created the iconic world of Dick and Jane met only once, when both were elderly. Montgomery interviewed Campbell for a planned book on the history of the Dick and Jane series. This book was apparently never published.
Goodbye, Dick! Goodbye, Jane!
In 1970 Scott Foresman replaced the Basic Readers (the name by which the Dick and Jane books were formally known) with a new series, the Scott Foresman Reading Systems. Reporting this change, The New York Times stated:
"For close to half a century, the Basic Readers were the prototype of materials used to teach reading; but in the past decade, Dick and Jane became code words for opposition to methods that relied on recognition and oft-repeated words. ... The new approach ... offers almost unlimited instructional items -- word and picture books, letter-tracing manuals, magnetic boards for letter and sentence cards, word games and bags of cut-out letters, records and cassettes, plus a variety of booklets that children can take home from school" ("Good-by to Dick and Jane ...").
In 1972, the National Organization for Women (NOW) published "Dick and Jane as Victims," a pamphlet criticizing the stereotypes inherent in the reading series. Montgomery addressed these criticisms in a 1976 interview with Tacoma daily The News Tribune: "Maybe by today's standards the books are sexist. But when they were written, women were just not as liberated or active outside the house. If I were writing the books now, I'd have father washing dishes, or mother mowing the lawn. Better yet, both mother and father doing things together -- like fixing the car" ("Hear Elizabeth Talk ...").
Montgomery's first marriage ended in divorce in 1961. She married Arthur Julesberg (1910-2001), a machinist in an ironworks, on May 30, 1963. In 1977, she published The Builder Also Grows, her first book for adults, and also appeared on the popular television program To Tell the Truth.
Montgomery was honored for her work many times over the course of her long career. Her accolades included the Seattle Historical Society's Certificate of Merit, the Pacific Northwest Writer's Conference Henry Broderick Award, the National Federation of Press Women's Honor Award, and the National League of American Pen Women's Award of Honor. (Montgomery received the latter two awards numerous times for various books.) She was included in several editions of Who's Who of American Women.
In filling out an undated questionnaire asking what satisfaction she derived from writing, Elizabeth Montgomery reflected:
"This is difficult to answer. Fame is not the answer, for my name is known only to librarians and teachers. Nor is money the answer, although I have made a good living from writing. Perhaps the chief satisfaction is the joy of feeling that I'm doing what I was meant to do. In addition, there is the knowledge that I've had a part, however small and unrecognized, in the education and inspiration of countless children and young people. As long as my books are read, I'll keep on writing" ("Answers to Questions Often Asked").
Elizabeth Rider Montgomery Julesburg died on February 19, 1985, in Seattle. She was 82 years old. Despite her large body of subsequent work, she is best remembered for her contributions to the Dick and Jane series. In recent years Dick, Jane, Spot, Mitten, and Sally have emerged somewhat from the veil of social criticism in which they were enveloped in the 1970s, reappearing as touchstones of nostalgia. Several publishers offer compilation volumes, and the cherubic Anglo-Saxon characters frolic across refrigerator magnets, tote bags, and yearly calendars.