Peggy Parish, author of the original Amelia Bedelia books that tickle children with their literal translations and mischievous wordplay, shared a bit of the fictional housekeeper's innocence in her real-world encounters.
Her nephew, Herman Parish, tells a story of his late aunt meeting her editor one winter day on a sidewalk in New York.
"Her editor said, 'Oh, Peggy! How have you been?' and my aunt said, 'I'm coming apart at the seams,'" Herman Parish says. "(The editor) said, 'I know just what you mean. So many things to deal with this time of year!' And my aunt lifted her coat up and said, 'No, I'm coming apart at the seams. Right here. See?'"
Not unlike the time Amelia Bedelia sewed teeny-tiny bird-sized pants when her employers asked her to "dress the chicken." Or the time she sprinkled the living room with a box of dusting powder after being instructed to "dust the furniture."
Drawing the drapes, pitching a tent, baking a sponge cake — Amelia Bedelia's high jinks have entertained readers for five decades, and HarperCollins imprint Greenwillow Books is releasing several new Amelia books in honor of the character's 50th birthday.
A commemorative anniversary edition of the original September 1963 "Amelia Bedelia" is now available, with seven pages of "story-behind-the-story" material: archival photos, sketches, an Amelia timeline and mini-biographies of original illustrator Fritz Siebel and Parish herself, who spent 15 years teaching at New York City's progressive Dalton School before writing her first book.
A line of Amelia Bedelia chapter books, aimed at kids 6-10, launched in January, beginning with "Amelia Bedelia Means Business" and "Amelia Bedelia Unleashed," in which Amelia is a girl rather than a housekeeper. The new books are illustrated by Lynne Avril and written by Herman Parish, who took over writing duties in 1995. Peggy Parish died in 1988.
We chatted with Herman Parish about the iconic character's big birthday and how she has evolved since her early days. Here is an edited version of the conversation.
Q: You were in 4th grade when the first "Amelia Bedelia" was published. What was your relationship to the character as a kid?
A: I spent a lot of time with my aunt, and it's pretty easy to see how she came by this. She took things literally — not all the time, but she was a little like Amelia Bedelia. There was one time she took me to meet her aunts and uncles in Manning, S.C., and there was this sort of public booster sign, "Welcome to Manning. Matchless for beauty and hospitality." And my aunt said to me, "You know, it wasn't until I was in college that I figured out what that sign was talking about. I thought, 'Matchless? As far as I knew, everyone in Manning had matches.' Any kind of homophones or homonyms were always fun with my aunt.
Q: And she found ways to weave that into her stories?
A: In the original book, Amelia Bedelia goes to work for Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, who were modeled after my aunt's own grandparents, who lived in a town called Summerton, S.C. The Rogers leave her a list of things to do, and she gets to sort of run amok because she doesn't have anyone standing over her, so she makes a whole day full of mistakes.
It's a brilliant device, but I didn't want to copy it exactly. Instead, I wanted to create more face-to-face misunderstandings. My template was Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine, where they go on and on for like nine minutes, and they're no closer to understanding each other at the end than they were at the beginning. I thought if I could do that with homonyms and homophones, that would be a really fun thing.
Q: How has Amelia evolved? She's not always a housekeeper now, correct?
A: In the original book she looked like she was around 35. Now she looks about 28. There are actually two different versions of Amelia Bedelia now. There are the beginning reader books and the chapter books, where she's a young girl but a little independent; she can still get into trouble on her own.
Then there are the books where she's an adult and has all different jobs. In "Amelia Bedelia: Cub Reporter," she helps the kids with their school newspaper and turns it into sort of a New York Post. For a story about the fire marshal going on vacation and forgetting to use sunblock, her headline is "Fire marshal gets burned." One of the classrooms is doing a project where they incubate baby chicks until they hatch, and her headline is "Fourth grade full of cute chicks."
Of course, it gets published online and goes everywhere, so the principal is saying, "Great, I'm going to get fired."
Q: How do you come up with the anecdotes?
A: It's fun and it's funny because you can just imagine how, once you start listening, these sayings and little idioms are everywhere.
Q: Do you think your aunt's mission was to make reading fun?
A: She was such a believer in children reading and giving themselves the independence to go anywhere in the world through their imagination.
There's such a small window of time where you can turn a child into a lifelong reader or turn them off. When she first started teaching kids to read, she would always look for interesting books … and there weren't many around. So she said, "I can do better than this," and started writing things she thought kids would enjoy. She figured if they had fun reading, they would read more.
Meet Herman Parish
Herman Parish is one of several children's book authors scheduled to appear at Anderson's Bookshop's 11th annual Children's Literature Breakfast. $55; 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 16, Abbington Distinctive Banquets, 3S002 Illinois Route 53, Glen Ellyn; 630-820-2802. Click here to learn more.
"Amelia Bedelia Fiftieth Anniversary Edition"
By Peggy Parish, Pictures by Fritz Siebel
Greenwillow Books, 40 pages, $14.99