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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