The Houghton Mifflin Readers (1971): Cover Gallery

Beginning in 1971, when the first edition was published, untold numbers of U.S. schoolchildren worked their way through The Houghton Mifflin Readers (HMR). They were the core of my hometown’s elementary school English curriculum at least into the 1980s, and as recently as 2008, I saw classroom sets of two of the series’ volumes in an elementary school. 

I don’t know how widely they were adopted or how long the school systems that invested in them kept them at the core of the English curriculum, but the population of Americans who spent years with this textbook series must be large. And based on the response of some of my friends when I show them the books now, they left a very deep imprint.

However, despite being a culturally shared text with an extensive reach, HMR has long since vanished, as textbooks inevitably do. I’ve managed to track down all but the final volume, Diversity. As I never got that far in the series, I guess this is fitting. I am not worthy. 

HMR must have been one of the first large-scale renovations of the public school reader in the post-1968 United States. I was being taught with Dick & Jane style books the year before my school system adopted HMR in 1972.

The series included excerpts from some classic texts (and probably helped make or keep them canonical), such as The Wind in the Willows, Charlotte’s Web, The Pushcart War, and The Little Prince. But what is most striking about the series is its concerted effort to be culturally relevant – to be of its time, to correct the record, and to look forward – just three years after the King and Kennedy assassinations, in the midst of the Vietnam War, during the early days of a new youth culture.

As a result, the series is heavily focused on ethnic and class diversity, urban settings, social and environmental concerns, narratives of liberation, fantasy and science fiction, and an increased respect for kids as creatures with genuine interiority. Grammar instruction comes with speech bubble cartoons. The graphic influence of psychedelia is apparent in the interior illustrations and in the design of each volume’s distinctive graphic identity. The titles alone are a timestamp: Signposts, Panorama, Images, Diversity, Galaxies, Serendipity

Those were different times. The series, its gestation, and its editors deserve close study in that context. (The series editor was William K. Durr.) However, this gallery is not that study. The only objective here is to blow the minds of anyone who spent time with these books in elementary school and hasn’t seen them since. 

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7 responses
Neato! I remember all of these!
I may be wrong, but I'm pretty sure there were three others in the series before 'Rainbows': 'Tigers', 'Lions', and 'Dinosaurs'. The circular grid on the spines that corresponds to the book's location in the series also suggest that 'Rainbows' was the fourth in the set.
Joel - yes! - "Tigers," "Lions," and "Dinosaurs" were paperbacks for the youngest kids. They have a different format/look, and might have been carry-overs from early HM texts. Meanwhile, "Serendipity" and "Diversity" were added a few years later, presumably because students were finishing the original run, through "Galaxies."
i remember these books and i remember them being my first indication that i was being held back from progressing at my own rate! i remember starting with kaleidescope and images after to moving to a predominately white school in northern atlanta, and i seem to remember wanting to go on to galaxies but not being allowed to do so. are the books broken down into grade levels? that is not a clear recollection for me. LOVE seeing these again, though. wow.
I learned from these books through elementary school.im wondering if anyone knows where one might be able to read these books online ? Or do you have to buy them ?
I loved reading these books in fourth grade! They were such a hip, cool, mod way to read great stories and poems from many different cultures. One question: in which book(s) were the selections "Unusual Books by Unusual Authors," "Hinky-Pinky," "The Real Tom Sawyer," and a selection from Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer"?
Today I googled "Serendipity grade school textbook" and found this page. Wow. We had these reading books in Chicago Public Schools. I had most of these, but not all. "Serendipity" was my book in 5th Grade. I have a copy of "Signposts" at home. I remember "Panorama" and "Fiesta". I am a graphic designer by trade and the cover artwork for these textbooks is mind-bending. Very heavy psychedelic influences. If I remember correctly, the artwork is thematic for each text and runs throughout the books on the section pages. Looking forward to cracking open Signposts in a few days. Really interested in getting a copy of "Galaxies".