Childhood survives with Iona Opie

April 23, 1991|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Evening Sun Staff

LITTLE DO THE squirmy kindergartners realize that the silver-haired woman among them in the main Enoch Pratt Free Library knows them well. "Please," Iona Opie asks librarian and storyteller Selma Levi, "I haven't got a blue and a green." Levi tears bits of blue and green crepe paper from her own streamers, hands them to Opie and proceeds with Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are."

When the children, fired up by Levi's telling of the tale, roar, gnash their teeth and wave their streamers in the wild rumpus that ensues, so does Opie. She is a kindred spirit, accustomed to the antics of little ones.

Opie has spent more than 40 years rescuing the lore and literature of English-speaking children from our faulty collective memory. Working at home in the British village of Liss, in Hampshire, Opie and her late husband, Peter, produced more than 40 books, including the classic "Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes," "Lore and Language of Schoolchildren," Children's Games in Street and Playground" and "The Singing Game."

The couple also amassed a collection of 20,000 children's books -- now housed at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University -- and a comprehensive collection of antique and modern toys and childhood memorabilia that their son, Robert, is likely to acquire.

"One of the best things that ever happened to me . . . was the discovery of a cache of tops, tipcats [a forerunner of cricket], chiefly, and balls" in a church stairwell, Opie says.

Judging from fragments of glass and pottery, the toys dated to about 1600, she says. "It was miraculous. [The toys] were worth nothing. Almost all were made by little boys at the grammar school and probably confiscated."

But for the long-gone boys, the toys were "such treasure, the real treasure of childhood. It was their wealth," Opie says. Such toys and their literary companions have been the Opies' wealth as well.

In Washington last week to deliver the prestigious Arbuthnot Lecture in Children's Literature at the Library of Congress, Opie spoke of the value of childhood's playthings in her Capitol Hill hotel room.

As a guest of the Cooperating Libraries of Central Maryland, Opie spent yesterday in Baltimore, where she visited a school playground, the rare book collection at Johns Hopkins University's Evergreen House, listened to stories with students from Grace and St. Peter's school and was honored at a Pratt reception.

Opie's whirlwind itinerary was a rare departure from the strict schedule she and her husband established when they decided to devote their lives to a largely untapped field of scholarship.

In 1944, a ladybird rested on the hand of one of the Opies, then a young married couple expecting their first child. The corresponding children's rhyme came naturally: "Ladybird, ladybird fly away home. Your house is on fire and your children are all gone." But its source did not.

As parents-to-be, the Opies were obsessed with learning

everything there was to know about childhood. They went to the British Museum library to find the origin of the rhyme. Their life's work had begun.

As they discovered the derivations of thousands and thousands of children's rhymes, songs and games and interpreted their evolving significance, the Opies never lost a sense of what it was like to be young. As children, they had both been observers, rather than players of the same games they grew up to study.

"I was almost totally silent when I was a child, not intent on playing a part, but intent on what I was thinking about," Opie says.

"Peter, as an only child, felt his separateness. He was literally separated from his family in India," she adds. Their sense of isolation and their keen observational skills allowed both Opies to remember in sensuous detail the ritualized escapades of childhood. "When Peter had to describe hide and seek, he remembered venturing out as seeker and the terror that someone would be behind the bush," Opie says.

As they traced childhood lore to its source, the Opies gained an understanding of why some games survive according to the needs of childhood and others get watered down or die out completely. The Elizabethan version of blind man's bluff, for example, "would have been much more boisterous," Opie says. "Children would have really buffeted the blind man, would have hit him hard."

And in Medieval times, adults played the same game even rougher, Opie says. They tied knots in their hoods and "whacked the blind man with those."

The game, as played once upon a time, was a dry run for the blows of the real world, Opie says. Games that get soft lose their significance, are not as much fun and diminish in popularity, she says.

In their collaborative roles, Peter collected the books and did the writing. Iona was the archivist, and -- as she continues to do -- paid weekly visits to a local school playground, where children, who had come to trust her, taught Opie the latest versions of games and rhymes, perhaps centuries old.

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