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Opie, Iona (1923—)

Opie, Iona (1923—)

British author and authority on children's literature and lore. Born Iona Archibald on October 13, 1923, in Colchester, England; daughter of Sir Robert George Archibald (a pathologist) and Olive (Cant) Archibald; educated in English schools; married Peter Opie (an author and folklorist), on September 2, 1943 (died February 5, 1982); children: James Opie; Robert Opie;Letitia Opie .

Selected writings—all with husband, Peter Opie, except as noted: (compiler) I Saw Esau (1947); (ed.) The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951); (compiler) The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book (1955); The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959); Children's Games in Street and Playground (1969); Children's Games (1969); (ed.) Three Centuries of Nursery Rhymes and Poetry for Children (1973, rev. ed., 1977); (ed.) The Oxford Book of Children's Verse (1973); (ed.) The Classic Fairy Tales (1974); (ed.) The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse (1983); Children's Games in Street and Playground: Chasing, Catching, Seeking, Hunting, Racing, Dueling, Exerting, Daring, Guessing, Acting, Pretending (1984); Tail Feathers from Mother Goose: The Opie Rhyme Book (1988); (with son, Robert Opie, and Brian Alderson) The Treasures of Childhood: Books, Toys, and Games from the Opie Collection (1989); (with Moira Tatem) A Dictionary of Superstitions (1989); The People in the Playground (1993).


joint winner with husband of the Coote Lake Research Medal (1960); M.A., Oxford University (1962); joint winner of European Prize of the City of Caorle (Italy, 1964); joint winner with husband, Chicago Folklore Prize (1970); D.Litt., Southampton University (1987); May Hill Arbuthnot Lecturer, 1991.

Born Iona Archibald in Colchester, England, on October 13, 1923, Iona Opie was the daughter of Sir Robert George Archibald and Olive Cant Archibald . She was raised primarily by her mother because her father, a pathologist who studied tropical diseases, spent most of his time in Khartoum, Africa, where he was the director of the Wellcome Research Laboratories. As a child, Iona hoped to follow in his footsteps as a plant pathologist. An obedient daughter who was diligently cared for by her mother, Iona looked forward to her father's infrequent visits for the casualness and freedom he brought with him. She loved her pets, teddy bears, and reading books and, by age 14, began buying antiquarian books. Although she preferred not to participate in most sports or activities, her mother made sure she received some instruction and had some knowledge of many of them.

In 1941, Iona joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force Meteorological Section and remained there until 1943, rising to the rank of sergeant. While in the service, she read I Want to Be a Success, a book written by Peter Opie. Impressed, she wrote to him. He replied; they met, fell in love, and were married. Upon learning that she was pregnant, Iona left the service, and the Opies were forced to relocate to a remote town, Waresley. It was there, while at loose ends, that they would begin a collaborative project that would occupy their time for the next 40 years. During a walk, they had encountered a ladybird and were reminded of an old children's rhyme featuring such a bird. Curious as to where the verse came from, they went to the Kensington Public Library in London, but the only information they could find was in a book that had been published in 1842. The Opies decided that a new book on the origins of nursery rhymes was needed and, for the next seven years, worked on the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Published in 1951, the book was followed by The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book (1955) and The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959), which was based on the responses of 5,000 schoolchildren. In 1960, Iona served as the author and host of a series based on the latter book, also entitled TheLore and Language of Schoolchildren, which was on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) network. In 1969, Children's Games in Street and Playground was published, and this time Iona surveyed 10,000 children. For a later project, she researched children's games by going to a playground weekly for 12 years. Both the Dictionary and the Opies' later book, The Classic Fairy Tales (1974), are structured the same way—the earliest versions of each verse or story are given, a discussion of its origins ensues, and comparisons to similar verses and stories from other countries follows. During this period, Iona divided her time between conducting research for their books and taking care of her own three children, while her husband devoted himself to earning a living as a writer.

Shortly after they had married, the Opies began collecting all types of children's books, always with an eye to future research and projects. In addition to their books, which included numerous first editions and association copies, they collected comics, toys, games and educational aids. Their goal was to collect on the physical side what they were compiling on the oral side in books. "As with the games," Peter explained, "we're interested in classifying both the attraction and what makes the thing work. Toys have been looked at as sentimental objects, but we want to look at them 'scientifically.'" Following Peter Opie's death in 1982, at age 63, more than 20,000 volumes of the couple's children's book collection went to the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Though the collection was appraised at £1 million, Iona had determined that if the Bodleian could raise half of that amount, she would give them the other half. With the patronage of Charles, the prince of Wales, the money was raised within 18 months.

Since the death of Peter, Iona Opie has continued collecting children's literature, researching and recording. She served as editor for Tail Feathers from Mother Goose: The Opie Rhyme Book (1988), and with her son Robert Opie and author Brian Alderson, she has published The Treasures of Childhood: Books, Toys and Games from the Opie Collection (1989), and with Moira Tatem , A Dictionary of Superstitions

(1989). In addition, she has been a contributor to the Encyclopedia Britannica, New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, and other reference works.


Commire, Anne. Something About the Author. Vol. 3 and Vol. 63. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.

Jo Anne Anne , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont

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