“I suppose my message in life is ‘Nursery rhymes are good for you,’” Iona Opie (1923–2017) once said. “If you acquire a nursery rhyme-ical attitude, you’re not at all put out by life’s little bumps and bruises. They just seem funny and entirely normal.”
Having dedicated most of her life to collecting and preserving children’s rhymes and games, Iona Opie was considered the world’s authority in the field. In partnership with her late husband, Peter Opie, she edited many acclaimed books of children’s folklore, among them I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Book, a splendid selection of jeers, riddles, and jump-rope rhymes chanted by generations of children. “I grew up in a very sheltered, placid environment, and the first time someone was nasty to me I crumpled in tears,” noted the anthologist. “I didn’t learn to speak up for myself until I joined the Air Force. You need to be introduced to possible troubles early on from a safe haven, then it’s not such a shock later.” First published in 1947, I Saw Esau was revised in 1992 and republished with appropriately wicked illustrations by Maurice Sendak.
Iona Opie also garnered resounding praise for her best-selling My Very First Mother Goose and the follow-up, Here Comes Mother Goose, both illustrated by the award-winning Rosemary Wells. The quintessential introduction to the sly wit and simple joy that are the essence of Mother Goose, these definitive collections — called “as essential for baby as is a crib” by the Boston Globe — were both named a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year and have received many other awards.
At the heart of these timeless volumes is Iona Opie’s enthusiasm for her subject matter — and her decidedly wry sense of humor. “Mother Goose will show newcomers to this world how astonishing, beautiful, capricious, dancy, eccentric, funny, goluptious, haphazard, intertwingled, joyous, kindly, loving, melodious, naughty, outrageous, pomsidillious, querimonious, romantic, silly, tremendous, unexpected, vertiginous, wonderful, x-citing, yo-heave-ho-ish, and zany it is,” she said. “And when we come to be grandmothers, it is just as well to be reminded of these twenty-six attributes.”