Transcript from an interview with Herman Parish

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Herman Parish. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Meet Herman Parish

My name is Herman Parish and I write the Amelia Bedelia books following in the footsteps of my aunt, Peggy Parish, who created the character in the first place. She — now there's not only the classic Amelia Bedelia, the housekeeper; there's also a young Amelia Bedelia in the first grade and a — I guess an older, young Amelia Bedelia as a third grader, third and fourth grader.

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All in the family

Well, it was way back in 1963 when I was actually in the fourth grade. We were actually living in New Jersey at the time and my aunt was living in New York City working at The Dalton School as a third grade teacher. And she had just written this book, Amelia Bedelia, and I think it was released in the fall of — or it was probably September of 1963, and it became a big success. And that was — I think it was probably her third book and we were all very proud of her.

Well, my Aunt Peggy unfortunately passed away in 1988 at a pretty young age. She was 61 years old. And I guess the good thing is she had celebrated the character's 25th year in 1988 and so the publisher had, you know, had all kinds of parties and celebrations at bookstores and libraries and conventions. And so she, I'm sure, had the feeling, the certainty that this character was going to go on and on.

And all of a sudden though, boom, she was gone. And she had written 12 Amelia Bedelia books and kids kept writing to her. They had no idea she had passed away. You know, you don't really — that doesn't pop into your head as a kid, you know, the character is so much alive and so much a part of your life that you just assume the author is there too. And so my aunt would get letters, letters from kids saying, you know, "Dear Miss Parish, if it weren't for you, I wouldn't be reading chapter books," or, "I wouldn't be reading at all."

And kids would write to her and say, "Well, I loved your last book. When is your next book coming out?" We would always have to write back and say, you know, "I hate to tell you this, but there aren't going to be any new Amelia Bedelia books because there's no more Peggy Parish." And so this went on for about five years. After about 10,000, maybe 12,000 letters later, we thought well, maybe there should be new books. And I had had experience writing, a very different kind of writing, writing advertisements for television commercials.

I would work on things like Hallmark cards and Mounds and Almond Joy candy bars and just a wide variety — American Express. And so I thought well, maybe I could figure out how to write a children's book. And I did not take that lightly. I knew from the beginning that this was not an easy thing to do because I had actually watched my Aunt Peggy write a book. She came to babysit me and my older sister and I watched her go through that whole process of writing a book.

And so I had a lot of respect for it because a lot of people will look at a children's book and they'll say, "Oh, you know, my memos at work are longer than that. Of course I can write this." And then they get bogged down and they, you know, and so I had a lot of respect for it. So I gave myself a deadline. I said in one year I'll figure out how to do this or we'll let somebody else write a book. And so after about eight months I had come up with enough ideas to do a book called Good Driving, Amelia Bedelia where Amelia Bedelia goes out for a drive in the country with Mr. Rogers and they have all kinds of confusions with left turns and right turns and things like that.

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New life for Amelia Bedelia

In advertising, my former life in advertising, a lot of times you would be working on a campaign that had been going on for 25 years and they had built up a lot of equity and a lot of positive things. And so I sort of kept that in mind also because Amelia Bedelia had been around for 25 years. They had this cast of characters, Cousin Alcolu, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers and sort of guest appearances by various authority figures.

And so I wanted to respect that and yet take it forward a little bit. In my first book, Good Driving, Amelia Bedelia, one of the people at the publishers said, "You know, it's the first time I realize Mr. Rogers as a person, as he," you know, because he goes out for a drive with her. Usually it was Mrs. Rogers, you know. And now Mr. Roger — and he just is just bedraggled afterwards, you know, and you really feel — you really feel bad for the guy having spent the day with Amelia Bedelia and all her foibles.

And so it's fun to take that cast of characters, sort of that ensemble cast and sort of move them forward, let them grow in different ways.

With her parents, I look at the father as sort of the instigator and the mother as sort of the — I don't want to say peacemaker, but she's the one who really smooths things over and makes sure, you know, she has self-confidence and is proud of herself and, you know, she's just doing a good job as a parent.

I really — I really like the father the way he sort of creates a spark and causes trouble, you know. And I like that side of Amelia Bedelia too 'cause a lot of the things that she does not on purpose also create a spark in people and events move and are shaped by something she says, a remark, some action she takes.

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The real-life Amelia Bedelia?

I think that the original inspiration for Amelia Bedelia was my aunt would take things literally a lot of times. Not like Amelia Bedelia, not just all the time, but you could see where she could, you know, come up with this character. But it's funny 'cause I was down in Manning, South Carolina, her hometown, and I was there, they were dedicating a statue of Amelia Bedelia in bronze that's outside the library.

And I was talking with one of her cousins, and this man was very close to her. They were almost the same age. And so they grew up together, knew each other very well. And he used to go over to have Sunday dinner at the Rogers house. There really were a Mr. and Mrs. Rogers. They were the grandparents, my aunt's grandparents. So they would go over to the Rogers house and this would be like 20, 25 people every Sunday for dinner.

And Mrs. Rogers had a lot of help. She had a cook, a full-time cook, full-time housekeeper. And he told me that there was a younger housekeeper who was really good with children. She would set up baseball games after dinner and she was terrific, really a lot of fun, but she was hopeless when it came to housework. He said that one time Mrs. Rogers told her to sweep around the room and so how she did it was she swept just the perimeter of the room. All the dirt and dust in the middle, she did not touch that because she hadn't been told to clean up the middle of the room.

Of course you don't think you'd have to say that of course. And so I think that that was really, you know, the inspiration for it. I asked him, I said, "Well, did you ever point this out to Peggy?" And he said, "Oh, yeah, I pointed this out to her." And I said, "Well, what did she say?" And he said, "She just — she just looked at me and smiled and there was this smile of like well, you know darn well that's where I got the idea, but I'm not going to tell you that." So, I really think that that was an inspiration, seeing that as a young girl.

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Playing with language

In terms of playing with words and playing with the language, I never really think of what a child would think was funny. And so I don't think of — it eliminates the problem of condescension 'cause I'm thinking, "What do I think is funny? What does — just what's funny period?" And so I think that, you know, probably if I think it's funny, a child will think it's funny too.

And there's just so much of it in the English language. You know, it's just amazing. We aren't — we don't all become Amelia Bedelias because of all the confusion that can happen with all kinds of saying because the English language is, you know, we take it for granted, but it's just amazing how many different phrases come from all over the world and they'll come in the English language, they'll stick for a couple of years or decades or hundreds of years — or fall away if they don't really work.

So it's just amazing. I'm just — I found out a word, the word boondock, which sounds — it's a very — it sounds like a very American word, very, you know, country out in the boondocks. It's actually a Philippine word. It's Tagalog, correct? Tagalog word. And it means a mountain. So if you're out in the mountains. And who would have thought? I think it probably came over here during the Spanish American war. And so the language is very yeasty and it's a lot of fun playing with it.

And I think playing with the language helps kids as writers because I found that a lot of fourth, fifth, sixth graders who are well past, you know, sort of the classic Amelia Bedelia I Can Read books, they're well into chapter books, very difficult books, when I talk to them about the character, they laugh harder than first graders or second graders because they really get playing with the language and they really have much more sort of appreciation for the power of the language and what you can do with it and just have fun with it.

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Permission to misbehave

I think the longevity of Amelia Bedelia depends upon how kids… I think kids like it when grownups make mistakes because grownups are always these, you know, fountains of authority and knowledge. And, you know, they're always saying like, "Would you just do exactly what I tell you to do? Look, would you just do what I say, okay?" And here's Amelia Bedelia, she will do exactly what you tell her to do. And that's the problem, she does exactly what you tell her to do.

And the problem is, of course, the English language, but I'm sure kids delight in seeing a grownup doing exactly what they're told to do and making a mistake. And what I really love about her is that she's not self-conscious about it. You look at her and she's not — she doesn't think, "Boy, am I stupid. Gosh, you know, am I never going to learn?" No, she just goes and keeps going. You know, she just keeps going ahead, every now and then baking something to get herself, you know, out of hot water.

So does Amelia Bedelia have permission to misbehave then? I guess so. I think that she's just so charming and endearing. You know that her heart is in the right place so to speak. And so I think that, you know, that gives her a lot of latitude in terms of, you know, because nobody's every hurt by what she ever does.

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Idioms and English language learners

It's funny, I know that in a lot of English as a Second Language courses, they use Amelia Bedelia for adults because a lot of times adults will come to this country and English is a very hard language to learn with all the nuances and especially all the idioms and homonyms and homophones. And so what will happen is an adult immigrant will, you know, they don't want to feel self-conscious or they don't want to make a mistake and look stupid, so they'll just sort of clam up and they won't sort of extend themselves.

And then when they get into these classes and they read about Amelia Bedelia, who's a grownup, making mistakes, not feeling bad about it, just going ahead, and so they get a laugh at someone, you know, instead of at their expense they get a laugh at Amelia Bedelia's expense and they learn the idiom too. So it's very useful.

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Homonyms, homophones and misunderstandings

And so in my writing, I try to have the same type of fun, same sort of unpredictability. You sort of think you know where this story is going and then it takes a left or right turn. And one of the things that my aunt did, it was a brilliant device.

She — in the first book and in a couple of later books, she used a list of things for Amelia Bedelia to do, and which is a great device because it allows the grownups, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, to give her this list, and then they exit the picture and she's allowed to sort of run amuck. And otherwise they'd be there correcting her the whole time and it wouldn't be any fun at all. It would be like the word police had shown up. And so I wanted the same sort of fun with misunderstandings, but I thought, you know, there must be a way to have a face-to-face misunderstanding.

And my inspiration along those lines was this brilliant radio comedy of Who's on First with Abbott and Costello. It's from the, you know, from the 30s. They talk — it's about a baseball game and Who is the name of the player on first base. And so I think this lasts about 9 minutes, 11 minutes. They are no closer at the end of that to understanding each other than they were at the beginning.

And so I thought, "Well, that's great. I wonder if you could put like through homonyms, homophones, expressions, if you could put people together, have them misunderstand each other just relentlessly, and don't try to resolve it, just go on to the next thing?" And so that was sort of my pattern for the book, Good Driving, Amelia Bedelia.

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A notebook of ideas

I keep a little notebook with me all the time because it's very strange with Amelia Bedelia. In fact, I have it here. Right here. A little notebook, which is very — I mean it's a — kids say, "Well, how do I become a writer?" Step one, get a notebook and just start making notes because especially with Amelia Bedelia, a lot of the things you hear are things you've heard a million times.

It's raining cats and dogs. How many times have you heard that? But I'm thinking, well, how would Amelia Bedelia think about that? Well, she would say, "Oh, goody. We're going to get a free pet." And that takes, you know, that is a launching pad for a whole other story. And so it's funny because a lot of the things you hear, you would never suspect. It just sort of washes over everybody because we hear these things all the time, but I sort of — I'm hearing them the way Amelia Bedelia would. And so sometimes I'm sure I look pretty strange to my friends 'cause they'll say something completely normal and completely mundane and I'll start laughing because I thought, "Here's what Amelia Bedelia would do with that and here's what she's going to do even years later."

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Collecting, writing, refining

I still write by hand on legal pads. And the reason for that is I think about a story months before I ever sit down to write about it. I use sort of the compost method where I put a lot of ideas in my brain and let them kind of cook and they kind of write themselves so that when I go to actually write the story, a lot of it's pretty well formed.

And but that means I have a lot of stray ideas, ideas that may not fit in the story. And so if I'm working on a computer, you would of course edit those out. You would lose those ideas and I'm afraid that if I hit the delete button on that idea or that line or that paragraph, I may not think of it again. So I want a paper trail because a lot of times I will go back to those legal tablets and mine those and say, "Oh, it didn't work here, but it's going to work in this story over here."

So I like writing by hand and I like the feel of writing. I guess I'm old-fashioned in that way. But one of my favorite things to do is in New York City there's a library called The Morgan Library. And the first thing J. P. Morgan did, the first thing he bought was the manuscript for The Christmas Carol. That's the first item in the whole museum. And it's so fascinating 'cause you can go and you can see Dickens' handwriting and you can see where he crossed out a word, uses a better word, crosses that out, uses an even better word.

And you get a real sense of his footprints. His fingerprints are all over that story of making all these little tiny adjustments that add up to this brilliant story. And so I love the reaction of — I will show when I'm in school, I'll show like a slide of, you know, the finished page of a book. I'll say, "You know, this book did not start out looking very pretty. Let me show you what this book looked like the very first day I started writing it."

And my slide of the legal pad comes up and kids, you just see them move back in horror and they know that if they had ever turned in anything that looked like that, they'd probably be staying after school. But, yeah, and they all look at their teacher like, "See what he does?" You know, "Don't give me a problem." And on this manuscript page, I have a little thing circled, which doesn't look very important at all. It's the apple pie — Amelia Bedelia's First Apple Pie manuscript. It talks about different apple names and you — that might have been deleted if I were working on a computer. It became a central part of the book finally.

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The young Amelia Bedelia

It's so funny about Amelia Bedelia getting, you know, turning 50 because kids will always ask me, "Well, how old is she? How old is she?" And I say, "Well, you know, when she first showed up for work, she looked like she was around 34, 35. Now she looks like she's 28." I said, you know, that's a great job. If you can work for 50 years and wind up like 8 years younger, whatever it is, take that job. And so she's gotten a little bit younger in the classic character and kids would ask, "Well, was Amelia Bedelia always like that? Did she always take things literally?"

I say, "Well, yeah, she, you know, she was literal even when she was little." So we started thinking about that and wondering well, what was that like the first time you're in the first grade and you take something literally? And that's what led to the Young Amelia Bedelia, a series of picture books of firsts, first day of school, first apple pie, first field trip with her class. And that then became sort of a springboard into a whole series of I Can Read books with her as a first grader.

And children were always asking us, they didn't want to leave the character and so they wanted chapter books. And at first we were thinking maybe chapter books of the classic Amelia Bedelia, but then we thought, "What if the young Amelia Bedelia became a little older, like the third or the fourth grade?" An age where she could have all of her literal mistakes and yet still be sort of independent and get in a lot more trouble. And that's really what led to the whole, you know, this new series of chapter books with the young Amelia Bedelia.

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A tooth story?

And so we have a bunch of ideas for continuing this series of chapter books. And a whole host of ideas for the picture books because there are just all kinds of firsts. And I've been lobbying to do a book about a first lost tooth because when I visit schools, a lot of times I'll have lunch with second and third graders, and it's like having lunch with Jack-o-lanterns, you know.

They're all missing teeth, you know, and they're just like — they look like they've been in a fight or something. And I said, "Well, how did you lose that tooth?" Elaborate story about everybody sort of remembers their tooth and they remember how much they got for it. They remember where they were and just these elaborate — and I just thought, "That would be great if Amelia Bedelia were to..." That's such a rite of passage too and going from, you know, baby teeth to permanent teeth, I think that's an important first.

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Fancy words

I don't think about restricting my vocabulary. I know that, you know, again in a Level One I Can Read book, I wouldn't use fancy words. I was struck by the fact that in the picture books, which are for even younger kids, you can use fancier words. You can use more elaborate vocabulary because those books are always going to be read to someone. And so you don't have to, you know, trust that a child's going to know what that word is. So that was kind of an interesting thing to, you know, a realization so that I try I guess to be more poetic in the children's picture books.

And much more I guess just straightforward in the I Can Read books. You know, simple action. But, again, trying to get that play in words. And a lot of times the play in words will work better if it's communicated very — I don't want to say flatly, but very dryly, it becomes funnier.

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Listening for the sound of the story

I read it aloud sometimes. And I, again, when I watched my aunt write this book, she had 36 index cards for 36-page books, spread out on the living room. We lived in Wyoming, and so it looked like you were flying over the Midwest, you know, these little squares everywhere. And it was a sunken living room. That's like Amelia Bedelia, it's a sunken living room. And I remember she looked at these cards and she picked up like the card number 2, card number 8, and just retyped everything because she had typed those, retyped those, she had to do a bunch more.

And she would go in, she would read it silently, and she would read it out loud because when a story's being read to a child, it has to not only read right, it has to sound right. And a lot of times, you know, if you read, you know, popular fiction aloud, sometimes it just doesn't sound very good, and the child is very sensitive to this and so you have to make sure it sounds right, not only reads right. And so that, sort of that lesson of watching her labor over this, you know, 36-page book was very instructive.

And so I listen for the sound. And, again, also advertising; how something is delivered. I've listened to thousands of voice tracks trying to, you know, cast people for commercials, people for radio commercials, and there just has to be a certain quality, because you've written the words, now you have to have a voice quality that will bring those to life. And sometimes you'll find a voice that you love so much, you rewrite what you've written to fit that voice.

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Picturing Amelia Bedelia

With the illustrators, it started off with Fritz Siebel and when you see — well, I know in the 50th anniversary edition, there's that priceless little pen and ink drawing and you see her just captured in just a few lines and all of a sudden, boom, and she's just right there. She's just there. And it all sort of flows from that. I mean and going forward sometimes her bonnet gets really big and sometimes it shrinks down and she's gotten younger.

But I think the essence of Amelia Bedelia still comes through from that original drawing as someone who is just the way she looks. She's innocent. She's optimistic. She just is just, you know, she just sort of takes the world at face value.

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Integrating pictures and words

With the picture books, I think for me, my advertising background was good training because a lot of times I would think in pictures and then write about it or I would think in pictures and have writing that sort of goes against those pictures, in opposition so that it becomes more dynamic. And because in advertising a lot of times you pair an art director and a copywriter, you know, who's doing the words, and you're not looking for credit; you're looking for a final product.

And so many times I would come up with an incredible opening visual for the commercial and the art director I was working with would come up with the great last line that put everything together. And instead of saying, "Well, no, no, no, we're not going to use that line because I didn't think of it and I'm the writer," it wasn't territorial. You were just looking for what's going to make the best advertisement. And I sort of approach the books that way. I think in pictures, but I don't want those pictures to sort of impinge on the illustrator's vision because most of the time they'll come up with something even better.

And so I sort of sketch it in and — not literally. But I have a picture of what it is, but I try not to communicate that to the illustrator until we see sort of what they've done.

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Celebrating 50 years of Amelia Bedelia

Well, I'm happy that, you know, 50 years later Amelia Bedelia is still around. And my aunt once told me — I didn't realize what she meant at the time until I began writing the books. But Peggy Parish had said, "You know, if I had known this character was going to be this popular, I would have named her something simpler." I thought, "Well, I don't know. I like the name. The name is good." And I didn't realize it until I started writing it and in the books when you say, "Said Amelia Bedelia," that line is gone.

And so when you're dealing with a limited amount of real estate with which to write, every time you say Amelia because she's always Amelia Bedelia. It's not just, "Said Amelia." You use that name, that line's gone. And so it sort of limits the amount of words you can have there. And it didn't occur to me until I started writing the books that that's what she meant. And I'm very glad that my aunt was around for at least the 25th anniversary, and I'm sure she, you know, I'm sure she knew that this was — this character was going to be dusting and un-dusting long after we're all gone.

And I'm happy to be here to celebrate the 50th anniversary, and I hope, you know, I'm planning to take her places she hasn't been before. And I hope kids will enjoy it.

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An excerpt from Amelia Bedelia Unleashed

Well, I'd like to read a small section from Amelia Bedelia Unleashed. This is where she wants a dog and actually this book — this is book number two. It actually grew out of the first book. I was writing Amelia Bedelia Means Business and I think it was like about at the third chapter I was writing about her and a woman who loves her dog and she later starts a dog walking service.

And this chapter went from 8 pages to 16 to 30 pages and finally I realized this is a whole new book. And I sort of — I sort of performed a chapterectomy. I took this chapter out and I left enough to work in Means Business and then I took and then grew it into this book, Amelia Bedelia Unleashed where she works for this dog walking service. She wants a dog now and so she uses a dog walking service as a way to test drive a bunch of different dogs to figure out which dog is going to be right for her.

And so this is right after she has gone walking a bunch of dogs and she's so tired after the experience that she has to call her father to come pick her and her bike up. She's just exhausted. So...

When her dad arrived, he put her bike in the trunk while she reclined her seat, let out an enormous yawn, and shut her eyes. "You're exhausted," said her dad. "Are you dog tired or just tired of dogs?" "Both," she said. "Today was a real drag." "You didn't have fun?" he said. "Oh, I had fun," said Amelia Bedelia, "but with ten dogs, I was the one who got walked. They dragged me here, they dragged me there. It was just one long drag." Amelia Bedelia's dad laughed. "Ten dogs," he said, "What kind were they?"

Amelia Bedelia counted them off. "There was a Belgian Sheepdog, an Irish Setter, a German Shepherd, Scottish Terrier, a Norwegian Elkhound, an Italian Hound, and a Welsh Corgi." "What a group," said her dad. "It sounds like you took most of Europe for a walk." "Wait a second," said Amelia Bedelia, "I forgot all about the Dane." "Wow," said her father, "a great Dane?" "He was good," said Amelia Bedelia, "not really great. He misbehaves a lot and Diana says he eats as much as a lion cub."

"Did you have any trouble besides the dragging?" said her dad. "A little," said Amelia Bedelia. "I let two dogs play and I lost sight of them for a couple of minutes." "Well, did you spot them?" he asked. "One was already spotted," said Amelia Bedelia. "That was the Dalmatian." "What was the other one?" asked her dad. "A Labrador," said Amelia Bedelia. "Retriever?" asked her dad. "Yep," said Amelia Bedelia, "I found her."

And so that was a way that, you know, again, the variety of dog names, it's just a way to get, again, a face-to-face misunderstanding between people. Her father doesn't try to correct her or anything. They just sort of motor on and finally they get home. It's just — it's just a fun way of playing with the names of dogs that we hear all the time.

"Children are made readers on the laps of their parents." — Emilie Buchwald