It’s been a half-century since Amelia Bedelia first bumbled into the Rogers’ household and dusted the furniture with dusting powder, put the lights out on the clothesline, and dressed the chicken in overalls. Published by Harper & Row in September 1963, Peggy Parish’s Amelia Bedelia, illustrated by Fritz Siebel, was the first in a series of picture books and I Can Read! titles that have entertained multiple generations of children and sold more than 35 million copies in the U.S. alone. In January, Greenwillow launches its celebration of the literal-minded housekeeper’s golden anniversary with five Amelia Bedelia releases.
The new books include Amelia Bedelia: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, a facsimile of the 1963 volume, which has an announced first printing of 100,000 copies. The picture book features Siebel’s original four-color jacket art and green-and-black interior illustrations. Back matter reproduces archival photos; spreads from Siebel’s dummy, with handwritten editorial notes from the book’s editor, Susan Hirschman; and pages from the Harper & Row catalogue announcing the book. Also due is a new edition of the I Can Read! version of that first book, featuring a foil cover; a brand-new I Can Read! title, Amelia Bedelia Hits the Trail by Herman Parish, illustrated by Lynne Avril; and the two inaugural Amelia Bedelia Chapter Books: Amelia Bedelia Means Business and Amelia Bedelia Unleashed, written by Herman Parish (Peggy’s nephew) and illustrated by Lynne Avril.
A third-grade teacher at Manhattan’s Dalton School, Peggy Parish had earlier written several books for children, including Let’s Be Indians, which Harper & Row published in 1962. Amelia Bedelia grew out of conversations the author had with Hirschman, during which Parish shared anecdotes about her students and their sometimes hilarious vocabulary mix-ups. “Susan knew that Peggy had an absolutely wonderful sense of humor, and the two of them came up with a fabulous book idea, inspired by things these third graders were saying in the classroom –– and Amelia Bedelia was born,” says Virginia Duncan, v-p and publisher of Greenwillow Books, which Hirschman started in 1974.
Duncan, who has edited the Amelia Bedelia books since she arrived at Greenwillow in 1997, points to the books’ unfailing humor when asked about their enduring appeal. “The way that Amelia Bedelia always does exactly what she’s told, literally, is very funny,” she says. “And the other thing I love about her is that she is so positive. She has this can-do approach to whatever situation she finds herself in, which is very appealing. She barges in, handles things, and everything works out. Amelia Bedelia just loves life. She never grows old.”
Keeping a Literary Legacy in the Family
Peggy Parish wrote 12 Amelia Bedelia titles before her death in 1988 at the age of 61. Nephew Herman, who was in fourth grade when the original Amelia Bedelia was published, stepped in to continue the series. He has written 27 titles to date, beginning with 1995’s Good Driving, Amelia Bedelia. The author recalls visiting his aunt in Manhattan in the early 1960s, and remembers well her sharp sense of humor. “She wouldn’t crack jokes in a knee-slapping way,” he says. “She had a dry sense of humor, an observational sense of humor, and would often make sly comments. She could really sum up things in an interesting way.”
When Herman Parish was in high school, Peggy Parish traveled to Wyoming to stay with him and his sisters while their parents were on vacation, and he got a glimpse of her creative process. “She was writing a book – I think it was Too Many Rabbits – and she had it all written out on index cards that she spread out on the floor of our living room,” he says. “We had a sunken living room – I can just hear Amelia Bedelia on the phone to a plumber, ‘I have a sunken living room and it’s underwater!’ – and she’d deal out those cards like she was playing solitaire, and then pick them up, retype them, and rewrite everything many times. That was how she worked, and it gave me a lot of respect for her method.”
After his aunt’s sudden death from a ruptured aneurysm, Parish and his two sisters (the three inherited rights to her books) received many letters from children wondering when the next Amelia Bedelia book would be coming out, and were contacted by authors volunteering to continue the character. “My father, Peggy’s brother, was very enthusiastic about the idea of continuing the character as a way of keeping my aunt’s memory alive,” says Parish. “I had been writing for some time, as an advertising copywriter, and I thought I’d like to give it a try.” “I talked about it with my sisters, and told them that if the publisher doesn’t like what I write, they aren’t going to publish it just because I’m a Parish. I contacted Susan Hirschman, and she said the same thing. I gave myself a year, since I wanted to study my aunt’s books and how they worked, but I didn’t want to copy them. She used the brilliant device of having Amelia being given a list of things to do, but then being left alone to interpret it literally and run amuck. I decided I wanted to have her have face-to-face misunderstandings instead.”
To that end, Herman wrote a story in which Amelia Bedelia and grouchy Mr. Rogers take a car trip to the country – a ride on which her literalisms drive him crazy. (The author says that Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” skit played in his head as he wrote.) Hirschman liked the manuscript, and Good Driving, Amelia Bedelia, illustrated by longtime Amelia Bedelia illustrator Lynn Sweat, began Herman’s children’s book career – and changed his way of listening to others.
“I’d sit in advertising meetings, and people thought I was taking notes, but I wasn’t,” he explains. “When people said an Amelia Bedelia sort of thing, I wanted to capture it right away. That launched my habit of note-taking, and I began bringing a notebook everywhere, to jot down things people said, and then think about how Amelia Bedelia would interpret them.” Parish’s young fans also help keep him supplied with what he calls “Amelia Bedelia-isms” on his school visits. “Kids are a great source of ideas,” he says. “They’ll tell me stuff that happens at home, or things that they’ve overheard.”
Amelia Bedelia Grows Younger
Children also inspired Herman Parish’s picture books starring Amelia Bedelia as a child. “Kids seemed baffled by the way she sees the world, and they’d often ask me, ‘Was Amelia Bedelia always like that? What was she like when she was little?’ So I started thinking about a book about her as a little girl just starting school,” he says. “A teacher in Texas had told me about how she’d told a little boy to glue himself to his seat – and he took some white paste and did just that.” Parish has Amelia Bedelia do the same in Amelia Bedelia’s First Day of School, illustrated by Lynne Avril, which Greenwillow published in 2009. Four additional books about young Amelia Bedelia have followed.
Amelia Bedelia will experience yet another incarnation when Parish’s first two Amelia Bedelia Chapter Books, also illustrated by Avril, debut in January. This longer format was a new challenge for the author. “Coming from advertising, where writing 14 words is a lot, this was a bit like looking out across a desert,” he says. “I made myself a roadmap of where I was going so I didn’t get lost. But it’s nice having Amelia Bedelia a little bit older than she is in the picture books about her childhood – she can get into a lot more trouble on her own, without adults around.”
Greenwillow’s year-long 50th anniversary campaign kicks off on January 29, which the publisher has proclaimed Amelia Bedelia Day. Advertising is planned throughout 2013, as is an author tour and costume tour. To help booksellers, teachers, and librarians celebrate the birthday, the publisher has created an event kit, a poster outlining educational activities, and a teaching guide. A video entitled “Amelia Bedelia Through the Years” will be available online via YouTube and HarperCollins social media platforms. And Amelia Bedelia will be getting an updated Web site, Facebook page, and Twitter account.
Fans of Amelia Bedelia will be pleased to learn that Parish has a long list of possibilities for more tales about this inimitable heroine. “I don’t think I’ll run out of ideas,” he says. “Life supplies so many literalisms and idioms, and I’m always hearing things that I want to find a way for Amelia Bedelia to use.” And he is clearly devoted to carrying on Peggy Parish’s mission of making reading fun. “My aunt felt that if kids don’t discover the joy of reading within a certain window of time, they won’t develop a habit of reading for enjoyment,” he says. “That was her impetus for becoming a writer and for creating the Amelia Bedelia books.”
Amelia Bedelia: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition by Peggy Parish, illus. by Fritz Siebel. Greenwillow, $14.99 Jan. ISBN 978-0-06-220969-6
Amelia Bedelia: I Can Read! 50th Anniversary Edition by Peggy Parish, illus. by Fritz Siebel. Greenwillow, $3.99 paper Jan. ISBN 978-0-06-444155-1
Amelia Bedelia Chapter Books: Amelia Bedelia Means Business by Herman Parish, illus. by Lynne Avril, $15.99 Jan. ISBN 978-0-06-209497-1; paper $4.99 ISBN 978-0-06-209496-4
Amelia Bedelia Chapter Books: Amelia Bedelia Unleashed by Herman Parish, illus. by Lynne Avril, $15.99 Jan. ISBN 978-0-06-209500-8; paper $4.99 ISBN 978-0-06-209499-5