Thursday, April 28, 2011

Beautiful handmade bookmark and the "Alice and Jerry" readers

This fine piece of child's artwork -- a smiling sun and a teepee resting on a rainbow-colored plain -- was being used as a bookmark inside a 1957 copy of "Guidebook for Round About" by Mabel O'Donnell.1

On the back of the bookmark is a pencil drawing and what is presumably the young artist's full signature in cursive. I cannot make out the entire middle name, so the most accurate I can be is to say her name is Debbie L. Schell.

"Guidebook for Round About" was part of The Alice and Jerry Basic Reading Program, which was a lesser-known alternative to the Dick and Jane basal readers.

When it came to tracking down information on the "Alice and Jerry" series, I found two fellow bloggers and one geneaology newsletter that provided some history and insight.

1. On Alana's Vintage Collectibles, Alana wrote a November 2010 entry that states that the "Alice and Jerry" series was published between 1936 and 1966. Primary author O'Donnell2 set the book in the fictional towns of Hastings Mills and Friendly Village, but those locations and characters were based on the real town of Aurora, Illinois, and some of its inhabitants.

2. On Prairie Bluestem, Genevieve L. Netz wrote a March 2006 entry in which she remembers enjoying O'Donnell's books as a schoolgirl. Netz writes:
Modern reading texts are a hodge-podge of stories, poems, plays, and so on, drawn from every culture imaginable. The Alice and Jerry books taught children to read through interesting stories about American children in authentic, historic settings. In the four Alice and Jerry readers I know best, each chapter in the book continues the story from previous chapters. The books follow a group of children through a year (or thereabouts) of their life.
3. Finally, in the January 2005 edition of "Self Seekers"3, Barbara Peck wrote an article titled "Singing Wheels." In her introduction, Peck writes: "[Y]ou just may have been one of the small minority that read the 'Alice and Jerry' series. And just when you were getting tired of these children and their inevitable dog (named Jip), you had a pleasant surprise waiting for you! When you reached the fourth grade, you began a whole new story -- an entire book of over 300 pages -- called 'Singing Wheels.'"

Peck reviews "Singing Wheels" and its plot in fascinating depth. Most significantly, she expounds on the "geneaological implications" of O'Donnell's books:
As I became re-acquainted with both books, I realized that they taught me my first lessons about genealogy. As "Singing Wheels" begins, 9-year-old children can instantly relate to a boy and his family, even if they live in other times. But when they start "Engine Whistles" one grade later, they suddenly discover that "Tom" is not the person they remember, but rather, his son. In the space of a little over 300 pages, new characters with familiar names are introduced and old characters disappear--a clear instance of given names being "handed down" to another generation. While Ms. O'Donnell never really mentions "death" or "dying," the reader soon realizes that time has passed in the story--and people have, too.

This is the first and only children's book series I recall that dealt with genealogy in any way. Even though that "big word" was never written in its pages--and even though the author merely alludes to the ebb and flow of the generational tide--she clearly implies a genealogical interest and imparts her enthusiasm to young children in an entertaining way. We've said this before: family history and research, formerly thought to be a pastime only of the elderly, doesn't have to be boring. It can be made fun for even the youngest reader, as Ms. O'Donnell managed to do in her books. A popular classroom activity that illustrates genealogical continuity is assigning students to draw a "tree" of the Hastings Family from 1850 to 1950...and the next logical step is to encourage them to make their own chart as far back as they can find out from their own relatives.
Peck's article is a great read and shows how important of an author O'Donnell was, even if her books didn't achieve the everlasting fame of the "Dick and Jane" readers.

1. I acquired this book from a wonderful lady who lives in Glen Rock.
2. Here's a facsimile of a Sept. 18, 1954, Aurora Beacon-News article about O'Donnell. There's some tremendous primary-source information in there.
3. "Self Seekers" is the The Self Family Association Quarterly Online Newsletter Supplement.


  1. I remember reading a book and one of the stories in that book was entitled Hastings Mills.I forgot the name of this book would love to remember the name and own a copy of it.

    1. Janifa: This blog post might provide some further leads in your search for the book you remember: