- Iona Opie (1923–2017)
Iona Margaret Balfour Archibald Opie was born in Essex, England, on October 13, 1923, and passed away in Hampshire, England, on October 23, 2017. Together with her husband, Peter Mason Opie, she did extensive field research and authored groundbreaking books that reveal the intricacies of children’s culture. Her contributions to the field of folklore have been remarkable and far-reaching.
The daughter of a pathologist who specialized in tropical diseases, Iona became fascinated by old books at an early age. She attended the Sandecotes boarding school and planned to go to university, but World War II made it necessary for her to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. At the age of 19, she wrote a fan letter to Peter Opie, who had just published a book about his youthful adventures. They married in 1943 and had their first child, James, the following year.
The story of the genesis of the Opies’ children’s folklore research has often been told, since it epitomizes the serendipity of their life together. Evacuated to Bedfordshire with Peter’s publishing company, they began to take long walks together. Iona was pregnant, and Peter was bored. When one of them spied a ladybug and picked it up, they both recited the children’s rhyme “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home, / Your house is on fire and your children all gone.” How, they wondered, did that rhyme begin, and why did so many children know it?
This moment of shared wonder inspired a long, fruitful collaboration that continued until Peter’s death in 1982. As Iona explained during her talk “A Lifetime on the Playground” at the University of Sheffield in 1998, the two enjoyed looking things up in reference books, tended to be reclusive, and had no objection to working long hours. They also preferred to work on their own, without anyone telling them what to do. Working with her husband, Iona said, seemed “like two of us in a very small boat and each had an oar and we were trying to row across the Atlantic.” She also mentioned that they “would never discuss ideas verbally except very late at night.” Earlier in the day, they exchanged written documents and wrote notes in the margins, because verbal conversations got too long and complicated. He did most of the writing of their books, while she did most of the field research and archival work.
When the Opies brought the manuscript of their book on nursery rhymes to the publisher Herbert van Thal, he told them they needed to do much more research and explain each rhyme’s whole history. Shocked but resolute, they decided to devote themselves to the nursery rhyme project. Peter quit his job, and after much hard work, they published their soon-to-be-iconic dictionary of nursery rhymes in 1951. After the book’s publication, they learned that a number of other scholars had been working on similar projects. The Opies were the ones who succeeded because they had given their research all their available time. Even baby James participated, playing with his parents’ toes as they worked together.
As co-authors, the Opies produced more than 30 publications. Their seminal works include The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959), Children’s Games in Street and Playground (1969), and The Singing Game (1985), all published by Oxford University Press. All of these books have become essential sources for children’s folklore study. After Peter’s passing, Iona published important books of her own, including The People in the Playground (Oxford University Press, 1993). Children’s Games with Things (Oxford University Press, 1997) was coauthored with Peter, although it was published after his death. [End Page 74]
The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren was published almost 60 years ago, but it continues to be one of the most frequently cited sources in children’s folklore studies. When it was published, people were amazed by the complexity and extent of children’s folklore, much of which had been passed from one generation of children to another for centuries. The Opies had gathered their information for the book by writing to countless schoolteachers to ask about children...