Front Cover

Dull, isn’t it? If you can’t see the text on the front cover, it says

Authorized by the Minister of Education  
Price 6 cents    
The T. Eaton Cy Limited  
Toronto Canada

My copy, found at a thrift, is clothbound and published by a historic but now defunct department store (Eaton’s), possibly at cost and/or on a subsidy, for use in the schools (1923–1938). It is printed in a largish typeface with black and white illustrations every few pages.

It was published in a mostly rural, post-wilderness, pre-World War II environment. Few had heard of nihilist philosophies or the moral duty to indulge oneself.

I used to work in textbook publishing, and here are a few of the differences that struck me, between the Ontario Reader and the books I worked on, for what they are worth:

– The reading level was well above beginning readers today. For one thing, many of the poems reprinted with permission were actually conventional literature. Also, there were many fewer distractions. Students could just puzzle it out, without PA announcements, text messages, etc.

– The stories children learned to read back then are moral, but not self-consciously so. They encourage self-respect rather than self-esteem. That is, one respects oneself for honesty and good behaviour, not simply for existing as oneself.

– The lessons are not “preachy,” as often claimed by pundits today. Rather, like Aesop’s Fables, they make a virtue out of common sense. That turned out to be important because, little did most know it, Canada soon headed into the economic collapse of 1929, the dust bowl of the Great Depression, and then World War II (in Canada, 1939–1945, the Battle of Britain).

– Religion, as it was commonly understood, was a normal and uncontroversial part of the culture. The book begins and ends with a song of praise and thanks for the day. Sectarianism was, of course, avoided.

The book itself does not seem to be online [Whoops, here it is online], but anyway here are some of the reprinted contents, which are:

“Alice” by Christina Rossetti     
“My Little Doll” by Charles Kingsley     
Proverbs XV, 1 (a soft answer turns away anger) This text would be illegal in many places today

Did the Reader’s approach leave slow learners behind? Maybe, though I have rarely encountered a person educated in Ontario in that era who is illiterate. It is actually more common to find young people today who simply cannot read a Ministry Driver’s Handbook or the schedule for recycling/trash pickup.

Again, I suspect it comes down to the rise of simple distraction, inner and outer, that prevents children from committing interpretive rules to memory for life. That’s too bad because the vast improvement in the inner landscape that such rules create makes up for the dull circumstance of having to learn them.

Ironically, this modern vid tells the story of the Frogs and the Boys in a much more moralistic and politically correct way than the Reader does on p. 7, and in my view, with far less effect in consequence.

We have a long way to go to catch up.


Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...