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Alan Stephen Evans
Critical & Contextual Studies
February 15th 2006
Type & Image
The 1950’s were an age of post war development. Few people had cars. Children
played games in the street. Andy Pandy, Watch with mother and the flowerpot men
were T.V. favourites. The Berlin Wall separated East from West and the Cold War
had begun. Children growing up at that time in Britain were surrounded by
conflicting ideas, opinions and influences. Young people were expected to conform,
and to live and behave in the same way as their parents.1
Standards of living were rising and unemployment was low. It was still unusual for people from different
social groups to mix together. There were improvements in education. A greater number of women went
to university. Social barriers between the sexes and classes were eroded as young people
from the different backgrounds mixed more. Artists like Joseph Cornell were assembling
fragments of society. His work is described as ‘a metaphor for the world’.2 The order and
precision of the work is in stark contrast to the destruction, which had been witnessed by
civilians during the Blitz.
Against this backdrop, two white middle class children and their perfect mother and father were
introduced. They were first launched in 1949, and based on an American version entitled Alice and Jerry.
The storylines of the Janet and John books were hardly changed for thirty years. Up to 10 million British
children, learnt to read with Janet and John. The portrayal of the perfect nuclear family of the fifties
helped nearly every child in this country towards literacy. My own memories are of feeling a sense of
achievement on completing each book in the series. Moving from one colour to another. The repetition of
‘look john, look’ or, ‘come here john, come here’ still resounds in the depths of my memory. This essay
aims to compare the original books with today’s version. It draws on the differences and similarities
between their structure, content and style. It also looks at cultural changes through the decades from 1949
to present day. This provides an overview of the introduction, disappearance and reinvention of Janet and
Janet & John books have been described as ‘the books that taught a nation to read’.3 The books follow the
adventures of two children, Janet and John. They remained in use throughout the 50’s, 60’s and part of the
70’s. Their disappearance was as a result of the changing face of British culture. They were felt to be too
unrepresentative of the multicultural, socially tolerant and politically correct direction in which British
society was heading.
G Thomas, The 50’s, 2003, Paragon.
The Art Book, Phaidon, 1994
N Shepard, Janet and John are back in fashion, www.answerbank.com.
Pop art had arrived from America. Artists like Peter Blake, David Hockney, Andy
Warhol and George Segal were establishing themselves.4 They were using popular
cultural items in their work. Tins of soup, film stars, cigarette packets, etc. Wars in
Korea and Suez erupted. CND was formed. Rock ‘N’ Roll was born and Teddy boys
rebelled. Motorways were being constructed and cars were rolling off production
lines to satisfy the masses. West Indians were arriving in Britain by the thousands to live and work. Riots
broke out in Notting Hill. James Dean died and Marilyn Munroe was the female icon.
The sixties passed Janet and John by. They went on in their innocent idyll, sheltered from the vices of pot
and acid. Festivals were a no go area for them. Artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Allen Jones and
Morris Louis were emerging. They were using everyday, mundane objects and sexuality in
their work. Op art was also emerging. Psychedelic posters and visual installations appeared
in galleries.5 None of this appeared in the Janet and John books. Their mother’s hemline
did shorten a couple of inches. Society was still easily shocked. Elvis and the Beatles were
the music icons.
As the seventies rolled in, the non-PC comedies such as Love Thy Neighbour and Alf
Garnett were soon to be pulled from the T.V. screens. They were replaced with equally
non-PC programmes such as Benny Hill and the Two Ronnies. Filmmakers were
attempting to show things as they were. The film Kes and documentary Cathy come
home showed a different Britain. Edward Burra was an artist of
the time. He painted watercolours of ordinary people. The middle class lifestyle
of Janet and John was drifting further from reality.
The seventies saw the introduction of the decimal system. The Royal family were still popular and
respected. The public were revelling in Golden Jubilee celebrations. Glam Rock was at its height with
bisexual musicians, Marc Bolan and David Bowie providing the shock factor. Television presented the
public with tough cop dramas like the Sweeney, Callan & Starsky and Hutch. There was also the birth of
analytical self-help daytime T.V. programmes. We actually saw and heard the public on our screens. For
the first time, the real Britain was being scrutinised and displayed, warts and all. Dennis the Menace and
Beryl the Peril were the comic strip role models. John could have made a comeback in a stripy jumper
and spiky hair. Janet could have sported Doctor Marten boots with catapult in trouser pockets. This did
not materialise and another decade passed.
The Art Book, 1994, Phaidon
The Art Book, 1994, Phaidon.
The eighties saw an Australian soap opera gripping the nation and providing role
models for children. Britain experienced rioting, the miners and poll tax protesters
fought openly with police. The gay community organised national marches. It seemed
like everyone was protesting. Janet and John were in hiding and who could blame
Television and celebrity were taking over from the book. Music was urging young people to rebel. The
punk rockers called the queen a moron. Sex, drugs and violence were issues, which began to make the
news. Gilbert and George had the shock factor with images of male genitalia and faeces. Chris offolusi
went a step further and used excreta as a medium for his work. Christo & Jeane-Claude were the darlings
of the new realists, wrapping bridges in fabric. 6The BBC had to ban songs with expletives or overtly
sexual messages. Frankie Goes To Hollywood felt the wrath of Auntie with their song, ‘Relax’. A global
consciousness was awakening. Bob Geldof organised the Live Aid concert to relieve the famine in
Ethiopia. Africa dominated the psyche. Janet and John had escaped Thatcherism, comprehensive
education and the Yuppie generation.
The nineties flew by and were signalling the growing unrest throughout the world.
Cheap Air travel meant that the world was becoming a smaller place. Terrorism
exploded and wars emerged in almost every corner of the globe. Janet and John were
still safe in obscurity. George Orwell’s prediction of ‘Big Brother’ was beginning to
be realised with CCTV everywhere. Controversial artists, Tracey Emin and Damien
Hirst, dominated the art world. The children of the sixties and seventies were now
parents. Politicians called for wholesome, back to basics education. In 1997, Tory
education secretary Gillian Shephard called for the return of these children's
favourites - traditional, proper stories. The time was right to rekindle the memory
of Janet and John. This despite the fact that the names, Janet and John had
disappeared from the most popular names list. Jack, Thomas, Chloe and Emily had
Between 1960 and 1970, more than 80% of children in this country were using the books to learn to read.
By 1980 the books were hardly used at all, maintaining a profile only in places such as South Africa.
British children were picking up the books of a new generation of writers such as Roald Dahl, Sue
Townsend and Paula Danziger. These books tended to demonise adults and mock authority. They took the
child’s view and went overboard on goo and bad behaviour. The children did not have to conform. The
The Art Book, 1994, Phaidon.
illustrations were exciting and fun. The text elaborated on mood and circumstances and broke rules. The
books were being read on T.V. They were also being made into films. Children’s reading books were
becoming more exciting. The Oxford Tree series presented Wilma, Biff, Kipper, Chip and Floppy. What
could Janet and John offer?
The ‘Star Kids’ company bought the rights to. Janet and John from the original
publishers. A 100-strong team of designers, parents and teachers worked on bringing the
adventures of the wholesome duo up to date. Gone was the politically incorrect Darky
the dog, and the sexual stereotyping whereby Janet helps mother while John rides in the
car next to father. Even the community where they now live is multi-ethnic.
The new books feature black and white characters. The children come from a variety of ethnic
backgrounds. Not all of them come from a nuclear family. The characters have developed a fashion sense.
They are also familiar with I.T. The school they go to has modern, young teachers and up to date
equipment. They still visit the park, shops and swimming pool but also visit car boot sales. One of Janet’s
favourite hobbies is football. She also wears a natty pair of hiking boots.
The covers differ substantially. The old book cover is made of heavy paper. The main title sits top centre,
serif font, approximately 72pt. The text is red on yellow. Below this is a line drawing illustration of Janet
and John. Bottom centre is the name of the series in capitals, ‘THE JANET AND JOHN BOOKS’. The
new book has a bright, glossy, thin card cover. The title is sans serif, schoolbook font; approximately
36pt. Below this is a colourful cartoon illustration of children playing at a swimming pool. The cover also
has a company logo bottom left and a logo of Janet and John top left. The colour coding of the books
remains the same. Children progress through the different colours in the series.
The rear cover of the old book contains only the name of the publisher and what appears to be an ISBN
number. The new book has the Janet and John logo top left. Beneath this is some information how the
books fit into the National curriculum. Beneath this are picture examples of the other books in the series.
At the bottom of the page is the company logo and a website address. There are no similarities to the
original book other than the colour coding.
The intended audience for these books are primarily children from 4 years upwards. There is also an
intention to capture the attention of the parents whom remember the original books. Teachers are also
targeted as the books are advertised and marketed in educational catalogues and on the Internet. The
difference here is that in the days of the old book, it was seen as the teacher’s responsibility to teach a
child to read. Today, the terms ‘equal partnership’ and ‘parent school contract’ place more emphasis on
the parent’s participation in this process.8 The website also has interactive games for children. Today’s
Janet and John package comes with jigsaw puzzles and parent guides.
The text in the old book was Times, serif, approximately 18pt bold. It was usually justified left. Leading
was approximately 18pt. The page numbers were placed at the bottom centre of each page. They sat in a
coloured strip, which ran from edge to edge. The new books have a centred text. It is also approximately
18pt bold. The font is sans serif, possibly schoolbook. It follows a closer resemblance to the way in which
children write. The text still follows the key words that make up most of the English language.
The blurbs on the old book contain details of the authors, illustrators and the publishing company. There
is a colour illustration of Janet and John in the centre of the page. It is the same picture as on the front
cover. The new book contains only the details of the publisher and an ISBN number.
The illustrations in the old book are simple and realistic. Clean fine line
drawings take up a single page and allow for text to sit directly beneath. Washed
out watercolours sit on white background. They appear to be hand painted.
QuickTimeª and a
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There is of detail and a specific inclusion of nature. Janet is portrayed as
a sweet little girl in a pinafore dress and sandals. Throughout the book she has
‘girls’ things about her. She is often behind John. She is blonde with blue eyes
and has a doll like persona.
In contrast, Janet in the new books is funky. The illustration is cartoonised. Bright bold colours but not as
much detail. Strong, thick outlined drawings take up a double page spread. Janet is dressed in a skirt, T-
shirt and huge hiking boots. She has red hair, freckles and pigtails. Janet is not seen behind John but
doing her own thing. She appears side by side with John. The text sits at the bottom of the page and is
centred. Page numbers are placed bottom left and bottom right alternately.
We see Dad playing a prominent part in their daily lives. In this particular book, we do not see Mum. The
stereotype Mum fussing over the children from the old book has vanished. Similarities between the two
books remain. The principles and narratives based on real life are the same. What changes is the visual
representation of society. A concerted effort has been made to include or not to exclude elements of
society that may have been marginalised by the old books stereotypical portrayals.
John used to be a boy continually dressed in shorts, shirt and tie. Now and again, he appeared in a T-shirt
or bathers. He was also blonde with blue eyes. Amidst the post war gloom, Janet and john must have
DfES 558/2001, Education Act 1996.
appeared to be the epitome of good breeding and behaviour. Every mother and father’s dream child. The
reality was Children living below the poverty level. An ongoing development of tenement, high-rise flats
and the flattening of the old community streets.
The new john sports baggy trousers with T-shirt hanging outside. He has neat, circular glasses. He no
longer leads or dominates Janet. He would not be seen dead in a tie. He has black hair and slightly tanned
skin. He could be representative of a child today.
The illustrations also depict a difference in the nature of childhood. The old books depict an image of
innocent children. They play freely in open spaces. Their toys are traditional and often appear handmade.
They play games together and swim in rivers or lakes. There is a complete lack of evidence of an
authorative figure, sign or symbol. In contrast, the new Janet and John live in an urbanised world. They
require Dad to drive them to and from their destination. Fashion appears to be important. Authority and
safety conscious officialdom appears in the illustrations. We see a lifeguard heartily blowing his whistle
and no doubt admonishing a child having fun. We see lifebelts, armbands, safety belts and the ever-
There are a number of conclusions one can make about the differences and similarities between the two
books. The ultimate aim of both of these books was to help a child learn to read. Today’s children require
a stronger visual element in their learning environment. They have been continually exposed to T.V.,
DVD’s; Play stations, Cinema, and advertising. This is reflected in the new books. They are lively,
colourful and offer a window to a world of activity. It may still be a little far
removed from the truth for some elements of society. Martin Parr of Magnum
Photos documented real life form the sixties to present day. The gritty realism
and highly saturated images pull no punches. One could argue that Janet and
John may be somewhere within these images. He covered the whole spectrum
of the class system.
Janet and John were an institution. Their rebirth has fuelled debate. Government ministers have pushed
through reforms in education.9 The Literacy Hour has been introduced into schools to combat the falling
rate of literacy in Britain. Arguments continue as to which method for teaching a child to read is best. The
whole word approach as in Janet and John, or the phonics approach. Family groups are also concerned
that the new Janet and john continues to avoid issues, which are very real to many marginalised families.
Gay and Lesbian groups are also concerned about the proposed legislation to repeal Section 28
concerning the promotion of homosexuality.10
Will Woodward, Hello again, Janet and John, Leader, Friday December 2, 2005, Guardian
Peers in the House of Lords threw out an attempt by the government to lift a ban on local authorities
promoting homosexuality in schools. The Government’s stand is that they are committed to repeal
Section 28 which has ‘caused confusion in schools and has been a barrier to building a supportive and
The Internet site, familyonwards.com made reference to Janet and John in an article about section 28.
They point out that;
Society has to be sensitive to family patterns just as teachers need to be aware of the distress
caused to those pupils who do not come from a traditional ‘Janet and John’ family. The article goes
on to say, In the children’s reading books Janet and John worried only about stepping in puddles or
caring for the dog, to-day’s children have much more on their plate. It is up to the adults to make
sure that what is there for them is as palatable and healthy as possible. And we all carry the
responsibility for that.
A MORI poll (reported in the Daily Mail) showed a big majority for keeping the law. It showed how most
of the population deplores prejudice, but still wants to safeguard Section 28
Janet and John have received further cult status by being used on the Terry
Wogan show. One could argue that these two characters reflect the true personas
of Janet and John. They grew up, developed a sense of humour, got regular jobs
and got married. A saucy narrative based on the lives of Janet and John Marsh
appeal to ‘Togs’, followers of the Wogan show. Forty something’s upwards and
generally middle class. An army of Janet, Johns.
The new millennium has continued to throw up major issues, which affect children. Threats from sexual
predators. Anti social behaviour orders. Politicians jumping from one idea to the next. Pressure on parents
and carers has never been greater. Children are being commoditised and sexualised. One wonders if Janet
and John will ever be allowed to be themselves, just innocent children. Will Woodward sums up at the
end of his article when he notes;
“If Harry Potter is the jam sponge and roly-poly of the genre, it remains to be seen whether Janet
and John, even in its revamped form, prove any more popular than tapioca pudding.11
Janet and John have been the microscope through which we have viewed the changes in society. One
could argue that they should have moved with the times and addressed issues within the pages. In their
Will Woodward, Here are Janet and John, in from the cold, Tuesday January 9, 2001,Guardian
defence, the new, radical political correctness was not on anyone’s agenda. Their disappearance was not
through the choice of children. Perhaps the authors found it difficult to continue writing much as an artist
or photographer does when faced with the onslaught of the new. I am one of the many parents that
purchased the new version of Janet and John. This was partly through sentimentality. Having observed
my children’s reaction to the books and the activities I can sum up by saying that ‘Janet and John are very
much alive and kicking’.
DfES 558/2001, Education Act 1996.
G Thomas, The 50’s, 2003, Paragon.
N Shepard, Janet and John are back in fashion, www.answerbank.com.
Starkids, Janet & John Books, 2001
The Art Book, 1994, Phaidon.
Will Woodward; Here are Janet and John, in from the cold, Tuesday January 9, 2001,Guardian Unlimited
Will Woodward. Hello again, Janet and John, Leader, Friday December 2, 2005, Guardian
1. The Army Game, http://www.bfi.org/features/mostwatched/1950’s.html
5. Love thy Neighbour, ibid
7. Neighbours, ibid
2. Untitled, Joseph Cornell, The Art Book, Phaidon 1994
3. Marilyn, Andy Warhol, ibid
4. Man woman, Allen Jones, ibid
6. Cornish Landscape with Figures and Tin Mines, Edward Burra, ibid
8. Death of Innocence, Petrol Bomber, The Bogside Artists, http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/bogsideartists
9. My Bed, Tracy Emin, http://www.hatii.arts.gla.ac.uk
10. Janet & John, http://news.bbc.co.uk/returnofjanetandjohn.html
11. Janet and John original, ibid
12. New Brighton, Martin Parr, Magnum Photos
13. Newspaper Article, http://www.togs.org/images/WeeklyPost.jpg