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Peter and Jane - The Key Word Reading Scheme


Happy Birthday, Peter and Jane. 40 this year!
Birthday celebration

(Just want to buy Peter and Jane Key Word Reader books? Individual books, partial or complete sets? Then just click here)

And that's just the books. The 'childen' will, of course, be even older since they were between 5 and 10 years old when they were created, in 1964. This will be a worrying thought for most of us Brits aged between 30 and 45 (and a good many younger) who will remember Peter and Jane as childhood aquaintances who were charged with the task of teaching us to read.

Based on Head Teacher William Murray's system of teaching reading using key phrases and words, apparently over 80 million of us have learnt to read with them. And some of the books are still in print; I still see them for sale in my local bookshop.

The Key Words scheme is based on a recognition of the fact that just 12 words make up one quarter of all the English words we read and write and that 100 words make up a half of those we use in a normal day. Teach children these key words first, and they are well on the way to making some sense of most texts.

So, step by step, page by page, these words are introduced and repeated (one might say hammered) to reinforce them as the length and difficulty of the texts increase.

This is reassuring and confidence building for the young reader - but doesn't make for punchy prose or dynamic dialogue. Here's an example of chit chat in the P & J household:

Typical Peter-and-Jane speak

The first books were issued in 1964. Ladybird employed a number of different artists to bring to life Murray's text: Harry Wingfield, Martin Aitchison, Frank Hampson, Robert Ayton and John Berry. These artists all had very different painting styles (Aitchison and Frank Hampson had previously workd on the classic comics The Eagle and The Marvel) but the brief was to produce appealing, naturalistic artwork and obviously the main characters, Peter and Jane, had to be recognisable throughout.

The first models for Peter and Jane were, I believe, Jill Ashurst and her friend Christopher Edwards who lived near Wingfield in Sutton Coldfield and who were only 4 or 5 years old at the time. Subsequent artists used their own models, adapting the pictures for the sake of consistency. This is why Peter and Jane in the 1960s books seem to have only one main outfit each - a white frock and yellow cardie for Jane and shorts and red jumper for Peter.

Peter and Jane in uniform


Different Versions

So far I've been referring to these books as thought there were only one versions - the 1960s version. However, in 1970, only 6 years after first publication, Ladybird decided that the books needed some up-dating.

This, I think, is one of the most interesting aspects of this series, because you can immediately see the point. The softly luminous, idealised pictures of Peter and Jane's home life and activities have their roots firmly in the 1950s and before.

I wonder if the original target audinece were aware of the nostalgic, retrospective feel to them when they first came out? Perhaps there was an awareness even then that these idylic domestic tableaux were unreal and presented a world that had never existed. (Yes, I was part of that early audience, but at the age of 5, I don't think my powers of analysis were up to the job). Or is it that those years, between the mid-sixties and early seventies saw exceptionally dramatic social change for families. Is this dramatic period of change encapsulated by the 2 versions of the books?

Because if you flip through the pages of a 1970s revised edition, it will still feel pretty modern today - which the first version absolutely does not - although produced nearly 35 years ago. No mobile phones, designer trainers or computer games - but the children have scruffy hair, wear jeans and T-shirt and don't tidy up after themselves.

It is hard to imagine the Mummy and Daddy of the mid-60s artwork on even speaking terms with their 70s equivalents. Instead, Mummy and Daddy senior would have far more in common with the Mummy and Daddy of the 1940s and 1950s stories such as Mick the Disobedient Puppy,or Shopping With Mother. The Mummies would have got together to discuss knitting patterns while the Daddies smoked their pipes and discussed world affairs.

Mummy and Daddy and Tiptoes Here are a couple of 1950s Ladybird families - from the 497 Animal series stories - Tiptoes the Mischievous Kitten (1949) and Mick the Disobedient Puppy (1952). Now they would be perfectly at home with Peter and Jane's mid-60s Mummy and Daddy. I'm sure they would have shared an understanding of the importance of gender roles and a good bed-time routine. Mummy and Daddy and Mick
Mummy and Daddy and the bedtime routine They would have understood the importance of leaving Daddy to rest and catch on on his reading after a hard day in the office. Mummy and Daddy and a glass of milk
Mummy and Daddy and bedtime But what would they have made of these scenes painted just a few short years later in the early 70s equivalent pictures? Daddy doing the washing up? Mummy busy with her own affairs? Peter's elbows on the table? Jane just helping herself to milk from the fridge? and even the cat misbehaving? Mummy and Daddy and the washing up

Which version should I collect?

The good news is, if you want to acquire a set of these books to help a child to read, it doesn't matter which version you get - just go for the cheapest. The text is just about the same throughout the versions. It is only the artwork, layout and design that change.

If you want to collect a particular version or all the different versions, then read the section below: 'How can I tell the difference between the different versions?'.

Peter and Jane and social history: Why were the books revised?

As already discussed, the books were revised in the 70s to give them a more modern look. But it seems likely that the artists were also asked to make changes to reflect perceived shifts in attitudes. So it is interesting to look through the original and revised versions of the books to try to understand what it was about the 1960s books that was deemed unacceptable in the 1970s.

The first thing you notice is that Jane gets to wear jeans and is seen playing with roller-skates where once she played with dolls. The scenes portrayed look less ordered and serene. Play time is messier and the children appear to bicker more. However, if, like me, you are happy to spend a few evenings browsing through the two different versions, you'll find that the biggest changes in the first few books are all to do with sweet consumption. Whereas the Peter and Jane of the 1960s would visit the sweet shop, the 1970s Peter and Jane go to buy apples instead. This change was considered so important that even Murray's text (so carefully worded and so rarely tampered with) was adapted in the revised books. adapted to reflect the apple over the jelly-baby.

Page 38, book 3a Peter and Jane (and Pat the dog) in a sweet shop, complete with glass bottles and kindly old shop keeper
And suddenly it has become a green-grocer's (who has lost the collar and tie but is resplendant with quiff and impressive sideburns) and the children have transferred their enthusiasm to apples. (Did children do that in the 70s?)Page 38, book 3a
Some changes are fairly subtle:
Here are the two shop windows of the 60s and 70s versions. Spot the difference.
Page 38, book 3a Apart from the disappearance of the 'Hornby'? train sets, you might notice that the golly, on the top row of the 1960s book, has been airbrushed out in the 1970s version.
And Daddy was expected to play more of a role in Peter and Jane's affairs. Whereas in the 1960s version he might watch with detached indulgence the scenes involving Mummy and the children, in the 1970s version he participtes more actively. Here you can see the old Daddy looking on and the new Daddy helping out. Don't strain yourself Daddy!

Page 48, book 1b

How can I tell the difference between the different versions?

(Skip this bit if you don't plan to collect the books)

Basically there are 3 sents of books to collect: