17 Nov 2009

Mandy can sew.

If you're looking at these pictures with anything that even remotely resembles nostalgic affection then chances are that you were at school in Victoria sometime between 1951 and the early 70s.

John and Betty: The Earliest Reader for the Little Ones, written and illustrated by Marjorie Howden, was introduced to replace the first book of the 'old fashioned' Victorian Readers. Simple text, bright colourful illustrations and appropriate role models is what they wanted in 1951. Gone were Bob and Edna with baby Len and Spot the dog and their rides in the 'gig and the van'; in their place were John and Betty with their pets, Scottie the dog and Fluff the cat, Betty's doll and John's drum.
This is John.

This is Betty.

Betty can run.
John can run.

This is Scottie.
Scottie can run.
Scottie can run to John.

and so on...
You had plenty of time to get to know John and Betty too - this 24 page book was designed to last your entire Prep school year! In Grade 1 you moved on to Playmates: The Victorian Readers First Book where you were introduced to John and Betty's baby brother. Baby, his name was. You also meet friends Ann and Peter. Better, you had 72 whole pages! Grade 2 saw John and Betty taking a holiday at the beach in the originally named Holidays: The Victorian Readers Second Book. 104 pages of John and Betty for your Grade 2 year.

Now I'm probably sounding cynical here, which is okay, since I am, rather, but I loved John and Betty. I have the set too, in beautiful condition - and I used them with Jemimah when I was teaching her to read. I didn't use them for a year each though - actually I used Bob and Edna's book and many, many others. And so Jemimah loves John and Betty too. (There's another reason as well, but I shall tell you about that in another post when I can work out how to photograph them).

It was with much nostalgic enthusiasm that I learned of an exhibition being held in Melbourne at the Manningham Gallery called John and Betty. You see, it seems that artist Mandy O'Brien has a fondness for John and Betty too - despite her less than wonderful experiences of them at the time. Mandy's struggle with dyslexia makes her memories of learning to read painful ones, but her pleasure in the characters transcended even the bad times.

Mandy has taken this love-hate relationship with John and Betty and transformed them into richly coloured, embroidered cotton thread, applied to canvas.

In her embroideries, the muted pale colours of the original illustrations are brightened up with fluorescent touches. Look at the fluoro skipping ropes in 'Page 16', photographed above. Her work is exquisite.

Mandy was joined by artist friends Miriam Porter, Madeleine McCristal and Colleen Cassar to take us on a nostalgic journey back to our childhood.

Madeline McCristal draws her huge dog, “Bullet” in place of diminutive Scotty in the pages of the book, and sometimes introduces new ones - in 'Who's Doll' (sic) we see Betty's beloved dolly in a most compromising position in a certain Bullet's mouth.

Miriam Porter translates John and Betty into delightful life size wooden sculptures surrounded by Australian native animals.

Each of these artists brought the well known pages of this childhood treasure to life in their own way. It was a joy to visit for Jemimah as well as for me.

If you're in Melbourne, John and Betty is open until Saturday.


  1. I don't have any of these books, but I do have a number of the early school book readers - which appear to be extremely similar. I can't wait to pull them out for the Chloe Dolly.

  2. Ah, everyone is doing nostalgia today!
    Great books.(Though a bit corny now I guess)
    My affection is for the Happy Venture Library with Dick and Dora,Fluff and Nip and Jane the doll. Very similar in text. And yes, I confess I have most of the set of about 26.
    We moved on to Wide Range Readers,have a few of those, too. Any other Queenslanders of my era remember these?

  3. Here in the states, we have the exact same, except they are Dick and Jane. I want to print the "This is John" "This is Betty" and frame it for my kids rooms.

  4. I had the "new" readers of the mid 60s in one school --"Mark and Janet" and then, at a different school it was back to "Dick and Jane"....Love the illustrations!

  5. Those are beautiful embroidered onto canvas!


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