Fifty years ago, Peggy Parish was inspired by her third-grade students to create her now-iconic children’s-book character — the literal-minded housekeeper Amelia Bedelia.
It all began when Parish, who taught for 15 years at the private Dalton School in Manhattan, saw how her students sometimes struggled to understand vocabulary, often with comic results.
Already a published children’s author, Parish would relate these stories to her editor, Susan Hirschman, who encouraged her to base a children’s book on them. And so the character of Amelia Bedelia was born. “Amelia Bedelia,” the first book starring the ever-cheerful, chronically confused character, was published in September 1963.
Since then, more than 35 million copies of her adventures have been sold. Generations of children have laughed at the mix-ups that occur when Amelia interprets everything in a straightforward, literal way. In the first book, “Amelia Bedelia,” for example, the housekeeper is asked to draw the drapes, dust the furniture and dress the chicken. So she sketches the drapes, places dust all over the furniture and suits up the chicken in overalls.
Amelia’s well-meaning efforts continually frustrate her employers, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, but captivate young readers, who delight in their greater knowledge of the vocabulary and phrases that confuse the housekeeper.
“We all love feeling smarter than someone else. For 50 years, children have been able to feel superior to Amelia Bedelia, and since she also makes them laugh at the same time, the combination is irresistible,” said children’s-book expert Anita Silvey.
(Disclosure: Silvey has been one of my best sources on children’s literature over the years, and I contributed a piece to her book, “Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book.”)
To celebrate Amelia’s 50th anniversary, Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, has reissued the first Amelia Bedelia picture book in an edition that reproduces the original text and green-and-black illustrations.
The anniversary edition also includes a special concluding section with photos and biographies of Parish and the book’s illustrator, Fritz Siebel, plus spreads from the “dummy,” or first draft, of the original book. In addition, there is a fascinating timeline showing the different ways that Amelia has been portrayed over the years by different illustrators.
As part of the celebration, Greenwillow also is publishing a new edition of the “Amelia Bedelia” book in its “I Can Read” format, a smaller-sized book than the original picture book. The original “I Can Read” version of “Amelia Bedelia” was published in 1992.
There’s also a new book, “Amelia Bedelia Hits the Trail” ($16.99 hardcover, $3.99 paperback, ages 4-7), in the “I Can Read” series. That book, plus the first two books in a new chapter-book series, “Amelia Bedelia Means Business” and “Amelia Bedelia Unleashed” (both $9.99, ages 7-10) are written by Herman Parish, Peggy Parish’s nephew.
Herman Parish took over the series after his aunt died suddenly, at the age of 61, of a ruptured aneurysm in 1988.
By then, Peggy Parish had published a total of 12 books starring her popular character.
Herman Parish published his first Amelia book, “Good Driving, Amelia Bedelia,” in 1995, and has written 26 other “Amelia Bedelia” books since. In a recent interview with Publishers Weekly, Parish said he and his two sisters, who jointly inherited the rights to the books, decided to continue the series after they received many letters from children asking when the next book would be published.
“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 (Peggy Parish’s editor) Susan Hirschman, and she said the same thing,” Parish said in the Publishers Weekly interview.
Parish told Publishers Weekly that he spent a year reading and studying his aunt’s books, “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 amok. I decided I wanted to have her have face-to-face misunderstandings instead.”
Over the years, Herman Parish also has expanded the world of Amelia, creating a picture-book series about her as a young child. The first book in that series, “Amelia Bedelia’s First Day of School” (Greenwillow/ HarperCollins, $9.99, ages 4-6), was published in 2009; four other books have followed.
This year, he launched the new chapter-book series starring Amelia, who is slightly older than in the picture books.
As Parish told Publishers Weekly: “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.”
Before her death, which occurred the year the series celebrated its 25th anniversary, Peggy Parish noted that she was delighted with the enduring popularity of her character.
“I guess I love mischief as much as Amelia Bedelia,” Peggy Parish said in a quote included in the 50th-anniversary book. “I simply enjoy laughing at life.”
Karen MacPherson, the children’s/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail. com.