Monday, March 8, 2010

Women in Folklore Month: Iona Opie

Iona Opie is noted for her pioneering work on children's folklore and games. Much of her best known work was done in partnership with her late husband, Peter Opie (1918–1982). Born in 1923, Iona is still living and has continued their work on her own since Peter's death.

My favorite short bio for Iona--because it is whimsical--appeared in My Very First Mother Goose from Candlewick Press:

Iona Opie has dedicated her life to collecting and preserving children's rhymes as an art form. "I suppose my message in life is 'Nursery rhymes are good for you.' And the sooner you start, the better. I always have one myself every morning. I just open a nursery rhyme book at random. This morning I read:

Taffy was born on a
moonshiney night.

His head in a pipskin,
his heels upright.

You see, if you acquire a nursery rhyme-ical attitude, you're not at all put out by life's little bumps and bruises--they just seem funny and entirely normal."

Here is a more straightforward bio adapted from

Iona Opie (b. 1923) and Peter Mason Opie (1918–1982) were British collectors, publishers, and archivists of children's folklore. Peter Opie was president of the anthropology section of the British Association in 1962–1963 and of the British Folklore Society in 1963–1964. The husband-and-wife team began their research together in 1944. Their first major work was The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951; 2nd edition, 1997), a collection of more than five hundred rhymes, songs, nonsense jingles, and lullabies. For each item the known facts about origin, variants, non-English equivalents, and earlier publication are stated. In the introduction, the Opies outline a suggestion for a general categorization of children's rhymes. This volume stands out as one of the standard collections of English-language children's rhymes.

The path-breaking The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959) efficiently refuted the idea that the growing impact of mass media and the entertainment industry would inevitably extinguish children's own, genuine traditions. Leaving the parent-guarded nurseries behind, this unexpurgated collection of jokes, riddles, rhymes, rituals, beliefs, and secret spells provides a vivid testimony of multitudinous children's traditions thriving in streets and school yards. The material is grouped into categories and presented together with folkloristic and historical comments, as well as international comparisons.

Unlike many of their predecessors, the Opies collected schoolchildren's lore directly from six- to fourteen-year-olds and not from adults reminiscing about their own childhood traditions. Their method of work foreshadowed a paradigm shift in folklore research in the 1960s that emphasized the study of contemporary folklore and fieldwork among representatives of a culture rather than text analyses of archival material. They conducted large-scale surveys during the 1950s and 1960s, with contributions from 135 state schools throughout England, Scotland, and Wales, and tape-recorded children in playgrounds all over Britain during the 1970s. The mass of information collected provided material for a further three books, all on children's games: Children's Games in Street and Playground (1969), The Singing Game (1985), and Children's Games with Things (1997), the last two of which Iona Opie produced after her husband's death, as well as publishing her own playground observations as The People in the Playground (1993). Aside from their work on children's folklore the Opies also dealt with fairy tales, most notably in The Classic Fairy Tales (1974). The Opies' inspiring example contributed to the emergence of children's folklore as a thriving field of research within folklore studies.

The Opie Collection of Children's Literature, housed in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, was originated by the Opies as a private research library in 1944. Upon Peter Opie's death in 1982, Iona Opie decided to place the collection, then amounting to twenty thousand titles, in a public institution. The transfer to the Bodleian library was made possible by a national fund-raising campaign (led by Prince Charles) and by Opie's donation of half the collection. The largest single category is made up of twelve thousand bound volumes of children's stories and nursery rhymes. Other substantial categories include primers, alphabets and other instruction books, chapbooks, comics, and children's magazines. Some eight hundred of the titles were published before 1800, including among other rare books a 1706 edition of The Arabian Nights and an early printing of Robinson Crusoe. The collection is accessible to the public in microfiche form.

The Classic Fairy Tales was the most influential of their books upon me personally. It was the first book I ever read that offered backgrounds on fairy tales, offering the earliest known English language versions of the tales as well as many wonderful illustrations. I discovered it when I was first researching fairy tales for the school project that eventually became SurLaLune. I bought it, too, with my meager student funds and it provided some of the earliest inspiration for what the site has become.

These days more Opie titles grace my shelves, such as The Oxford Book of Children's Verse and the seminal The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes.

I also own A Dictionary of Superstitions which Iona coedited with Moira Tatem.

Even more appear on my wishlist such as The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren and Children's Games with Things: Marbles, Fivestones, Throwing and Catching, Gambling, Hopscotch, Chucking and Pitching, Ball-Bouncing, Skipping, Tops and Tipcat.

Another well-known Opie title is I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild's Pocket Book, illustrated by the ever popular Maurice Sendak.

Review from Publishers Weekly:

This inspired collaboration marries the earliest work of the Opies--British folklorists who for four decades charted the territory of childhood through schoolchildren's language--with new illustrations that show Sendak at his finest. With the shape and heft of a handbook, the volume is, in effect, a primer of children's humor and lore. Many rhymes are instantly familiar; others are less so--especially those with a British tinge. Merely perusing the Contents page, with such tantalizing listings as "Guile-Malicious" and "Guile-Innocent," is a delectable exercise. Because the Opies' particular genius lay in mapping the verbal turf of children themselves--and not adults' often sanitized versions--the rhymes they collected portray not only the playfulness of childhood but its occasional crudeness and cruelty as well. For the same reason, they exude spontaneity and energy. Sendak's illustrations pick up this energy and add their own. His characters are, variously, mischievous, sprightly, gnarly and spectral, and possessed of a seemingly endless array of expressions. Appealing and immediately accessible, they are drawn in simple, clean lines that recall his early work and painted with a broad palette that ranges from rich russets to soft indigos. The text and art are seamlessly interactive: small figures chase each other around the type; larger illustrations mingle images from several verses. And Sendak's ability to create provocative psychological dimension is in full evidence as well. The sequence illustrating the ubiquitous "Rain, rain, go away" is accompanied by a series showing a child's mother gradually transformed into a protective tree; the figure pelted in "Sticks and stones" is a skeleton itself. The republication of these rhymes brings the Opies' work full circle; the book seems a satisfying culmination of Sendak's gifts as well.

The Opies have amassed one of the most impressive collections of children's literature and ephemera which is now housed by the Bodleian Library, Oxford University as the Opie Collection, but the Indiana University Lilly Library also houses The Peter & Iona Opie Collection of Folklore and Related Topics.

And please note that I didn't even list all of Iona Opie's work here. These are the highlights and most important works. Her contribution to the field of children's folklore is astounding and so she had to be included in this month's salute to women in folklore.

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