'What did you do in school today?" Chuck Kleinhans remembers this familiar question being put to a new first-grader some years ago, as a household he was part of sat around the dinner table in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"The teacher helped us read a book," answered the child. "It was about a brother and a sister, Dick and Jane, and they had a dog named Spot. And a kitten, named ... ah, ah ... I forget."
"Was it Puff?" one of the adults volunteered.
The child stared at him in amazement. "How did you know?" he asked.
The adult knew because Dick and Jane were as much a part of his own early schooling as they later became for the first-grader.
Skipping and running through a safe and untroubled middle-class world, the brother-and-sister team had been the stars of learning-to-read primers since the 1930s. In simple words and pictures that showed them living in a white nuclear family - working dad, at-home mom - they led some 85 million schoolchildren along the path to literacy.
Yet by the 1960s, Dick and Jane's visibility in classrooms began dropping off, and the final new edition came out in 1965, although some textbooks remained in classrooms for years.
Despite some attempts at social modernizing - like watching TV, mild back talk, and the appearance of a black family on the block - Dick and Jane were casualties of an emerging attitude that their unruffled white life no longer reflected inclusive American values.
But now the timeless tots are popping up again - all over the place. Brought to the fore by an adult longing for old-fashioned values and simpler times, Dick and Jane are appearing in venues ranging from TV to museums.
The recently published "Growing Up With Dick and Jane" (Collins Publishers San Francisco, 117 pp., $19.95) offers a colorful sampler of original Dick and Jane stories, interspersed with a text putting the stories in their social and historical context.
On public-television station WTVP in Peoria, Ill., the documentary "Whatever Happened to Dick and Jane" turned out to be one of the station's most popular shows. Since then, the program has found its way onto more than 80 other public-TV stations.
And at least two museum shows are now featuring Dick and Jane. The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., for instance, is exhibiting original artwork from the textbooks along with photos of the Dick and Jane child models and their dog Spot. Meanwhile, a Dick and Jane museum is maintained at Frankfort, Ind., where the siblings were created. (See story below.)
Why such fascination with supposedly bygone images? "It's something shared across the generations," explains Mr. Kleinhans, now a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "Learning to read is a great pleasure and achievement for children. If one does it with Dick and Jane, the pleasure remains years later."
Mention Dick and Jane to almost anyone who went to school more than 10 years ago, in fact, and you are likely to unleash a flood of classroom memories. Writer Carrie Goerne still remembers vividly her first encounter with Dick and Jane in the early grades in Evanston, Ill., where she grew up. Today she "still gets warm and fuzzy at the thought of Dick and Jane - and Spot, too," she says.
"I learned to read with Dick and Jane in the early '70s. I like Dick and Jane for the same reasons I just bought the 'Schoolhouse Rock' video and watch reruns of Mary Tyler Moore on 'Nick at Nite.' "
Dick and Jane represent a kind of mental refuge for people like Ms. Goerne. To her, the appeal is "the simple conversations of Dick and Jane. Every day I am bombarded with endless information from e-mail, voice mail, fax, and TV. Work is complicated. Relationships are complicated. Dick and Jane lived in a simple world where communication was limited to 10 words or less. No information overload there - and they got along just swell!"
Marshall Fishwick, a specialist in popular culture at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, finds feelings like Goerne's widespread in the United States, because Dick and Jane "stood for the very things that are missing now: innocence, purity, loyalty, and family values. The faster we move forward," he observes, "the more we look back."
For Kleinhans, the Dick and Jane illustrations have something to do with it. He calls it a "soft pictorialism without the hard draftsmanlike edges of Norman Rockwell, but equally Americana sentimentalism. It holds up over time."
Another reason for the duo's renewed popularity is the coming of age of the baby boomers who were once immersed in Dick and Jane adventures. "Dick and Jane were the up-and-coming '50s children," says Tom Douherty, professor of American Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.
"They're the characters that taught the baby boomers how to read and write, and now the boomers dictate everything."
They lost popularity in the 1970s and 1980s because they were "politically incorrect," Mr. Douherty says. He thinks that's a shame.
"The Dick and Jane books were really very effective pieces of literature," he maintains. "Ask anyone what their first memories of reading were, and everyone will say, 'See Spot run.' "
As Professor Fishwick sums up the trend: "Dick and Jane live in a utopia that we yearn to re-create."