Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Teaching Children to Read: Herpetology in the Unit Study Book Series

Fig. 1. The Story of Frogs.
Cover. Mary Belle Herring, 1935.

From the mid-1930s through the late 1940s, American Education Press, Columbus, Ohio, best known as publisher of My Weekly Reader (later Weekly Reader) from 1928 to 2012, issued a series of booklets designed to assist elementary school teachers in encouraging children to improve their reading skills while learning interesting facts about the world around them; 80 were listed as available as of 1935. The short booklets were titled Unit Study Books, with each featuring a different topic that covered everything from the Romans to coal, corn, and money. Booklets had orange or blue covers and were non-consecutively numbered. Covers were mostly uniform in design (see Fig. 1), but later reprintings or issues sometimes had different covers from the original format.

The booklets varied in style by author, with some concentrating solely on facts and others conveying information by way of storytelling. They were written specifically for elementary school children, with the 100–600 numbers in the series indicating suitability for grades 1 to 6. The inside cover provides the teacher with an outline of generalizations to be learned and the important elements that the children should grasp after reading the booklet.

Frogs and reptiles are featured in two of the Unit Study Books, but only The Story of Frogs focused entirely on herpetology (Figs. 1–4). The Story of Frogs (Unit Study Book No. 351, published in 1935) consists of 36 pages that tells the story of a tadpole as it hatches and grows from an egg to a tadpole to an adult. The booklet is subdivided into several short stories of a few pages each covering the various stages in a frog’s life, each with a quiz or exercise at the end that children can pencil-in to show they have understood the lesson. The booklet is well-written, accurate, and I suspect would have been entertaining for a young child of that era.

Fig. 2. Inside cover of The Story of Frogs explaining the lessons to be learned (left) and the first story in the booklet, Tiny Tad (right).

Fig. 3. From Pollywog to Frog in The Story of Frogs.

The Story of Frogs was written by Mary Belle Herring (2 December 1897–9 April 1987) of Rockingham, North Carolina. Ms. Herring is listed on the booklet as associated with the Elementary Schools of Raleigh. Mary Belle Herring was orphaned early in life, but was educated at Littleton College, a Methodist college for young women in Littleton, North Carolina, where her sister was Treasurer. It appears that she spent her entire career as a teacher and never married; in the early 1950s, she was teaching third grade at L.J. Bell Elementary School in Rockingham. A former student remembered her as loving books and reading—which she highly encouraged—and as a founder of a book club at the school. She used to bring in copies of The Weekly Reader for her students. The Weekly Reader also was published by American Education Press, which perhaps led to her interest in writing The Story of Frogs. Why she chose to write about frogs is unknown, but she did an excellent job of getting her facts correct and presenting them in an entertaining fashion that would appeal to her pupils. She did not write any other titles in the Unit Study Book series.

Fig. 4. A lesson at the end of a frog story. Note the child’s faint writing.


The text is supplemented by black and white illustrations and photos of frogs and their ecological interactions, from prey to defense. Some of the photos are credited to L.W. Brownell, a nature photographer known for his books Photography for the Sportsman Naturalist (1904, MacMillan Publishing, New York) and Natural History with a Camera (1942, Photographic Publishing Co., Boston). Brownell also published short articles on natural history, which he illustrated himself (e.g. The Birth of a Butterfly, The Strand Magazine, 1903). The illustrations are uncredited in The Story of Frogs but have a “B” in the corner, perhaps suggesting Brownell provided them as well.

Fig. 5. Protection in Nature. Cover. Gaynelle Davis, 1935.


The only other booklet in the Unit Study Book series that mentions herps is No. 352, Protection in Nature, by Gaynelle Davis (Figs. 5–6). Also published in 1935 and with 36 pages, Protection in Nature includes examples of the ways animals and plants protect themselves, but it does not tell a story, instead presenting just the facts, sometimes in a bit disjointed manner as it jumps from example to example throughout the animal and plant kingdoms. It also does not include quizzes or reading exercises, except for a short “Things To Do” section at the end of the booklet. Brief mention is made of poison in snakes (somewhat misleadingly, as there are more than four venomous snakes in the United States), spines on horned lizards, and turtle shells. The presentation is not as imaginative and effective as in The Story of Frogs, and the text comes across as somewhat dull (at least to me!). Gaynelle Davis (7 October 1899–26 May 1992) is listed as a faculty member at Fort Hays State College in Hays, Kansas. In a commencement exercise in 1969, she was listed as an Emeritus faculty member.

Fig. 6.  Rattlesnake illustration and text suggesting that snakes use poison as a weapon in Protection in Nature.


For information on and photo of Mary Belle Herring, see:

Smith, Ken. Undated. Rockingham Memories. L. J. Bell Elementary & The Original 1952–1953 Faculty (in collaboration with Dr. David Huneycutt (RHS ’62).             https://rrjoel.wixsite.com/rockinghammemories/copy-of-a-hug-a-tear-a-kiss-a-dance

            [Accessed 14 February 2024]


Submitted by: C. Kenneth Dodd, Jr.

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