It’s been 50 years since the original author of Amelia Bedelia, Peggy Parish, debuted the popular children’s book series. Peggy passed away in 1988 but her Amelia Bedelia legacy lives on. Herman Parish, Peggy’s nephew, took over the series after Peggy’s passing.
First Book recently interviewed Herman Parish about Amelia Bedelia turning 50 and why books are important for young readers.
First Book: How was a beloved character like Amelia Bedelia created? Was there any inspiration?
Herman Parish: My Aunt Peggy Parish would often take things literally, not continually as Amelia Bedelia does, but enough times that one could understand how she could have come up with the character naturally. Peggy also drew inspiration from the class of third graders she taught. She would ask them to do something and a student would ask “Do you mean for us to do what you said?” When Peggy thought back on her exact words, she realized that if they were taken literally, there could be a problem. That got her to thinking that there might be a story there.
A couple of years after Peggy passed away, I heard an intriguing tale that may offer a clue as to why she made Amelia Bedelia a housekeeper. I was visiting Peggy’s hometown of Manning, South Carolina and spoke with one of her cousins. They had been playmates at their Grandparents house, where a big dinner was served every Sunday. The Grandparents were named — surprise, surprise — Mr. & Mrs. Rogers.
Mrs. Rogers had both a cook and a housekeeper. There was also a younger housekeeper whose main job was to look after the children because she was hopeless at housework. Peggy’s cousin recalled a time when this young housekeeper had to fill in for the older one. Mrs. Rogers told her to “sweep around the room.” This young housekeeper did just what she was told: she swept the edges of the room clean, but left the center of the room untouched. All of the children laughed at her mistakes. I asked this cousin if he had ever reminded Peggy about this maid. He said that when he did, Peggy did not say anything — she just smiled.
Herman Parish: Peggy Parish passed away in November of 1988. All during that spring and summer, she and Amelia Bedelia were celebrated at national meetings and conventions of teachers and librarians because it was Amelia Bedelia’s 25th Birthday. So Peggy must have had a sense that the character she created would live on long after she was gone. I’m sure that Amelia Bedelia will be around long after I am gone, taking the world at face value as she does exactly what she is told to do.
First Book: Why are books so important for young readers?
Herman Parish: I’ll tell you what my Aunt Peggy Parish thought because I agree with her. She believed that there was a very narrow window when a child would be or could be interested in reading. If you missed that opportunity, it was very difficult to engage them later. She felt that reading was important because a child’s imagination can take them anywhere. It opens them up to all sorts of possibilities in their own lives.
First Book: Over 40% of children in the US do not have age-appropriate books in their homes, nor in classrooms or programs they attend due to the fact that they simply cannot afford new books. As someone who writes children’s books, how does this affect you?
Herman Parish: Well, I would be optimistic about it. I would say that whatever could be done to get just one book into the hands of those 40% would give them a big boost make a huge difference to them. Also, whatever books they get would be cherished and recalled fondly for years to come. As a writer, I do my best to write the best books that I can. That way, if one of those children in the 40% happen to read one of my books, they will have fun. Reading what you like to read one book at a time will develop the habit of simply liking to read, which will be with them for the rest of their lives. I only hope that children would find my books fun to read, which would encourage them to keep reading and seek out other books they would enjoy.
First Book: What was your favorite children’s book?
Herman Parish: My Aunt Peggy sent me a copy of The Cat in the Hat when it was first published. At that time, my father was in the Air Force and we were stationed in England. I remember thinking that the Cat himself must be an American because he was so brash and bold, which is how the British saw us. I identified with this character as a role model, as I was born in Texas and wore cowboy boots and jeans in the first grade at an otherwise tame British primary school. The other kids probably thought that I was the Cat!
Amelia Bedelia books are available on the First Book Marketplace, a website exclusively for educators and program leaders that work with kids in need.