RECENT surveys in Britain show that a declining number of children are experiencing the delights of curling up with a good book and losing themselves in imaginary worlds of fantasy and adventure. It seems that children (or more likely their parents) are buying fewer books than they used to. Simon Hornby, chairman of W.H. Smith, one of Britain's leading booksellers, noted recently that surveys show that the level of illiteracy in Britain is high and climbing, and that while most children watch TV, far fewer read. But the market in children's books of the past is booming. Not among the children for whom they were written, but exclusively among adult collectors. First editions of the juvenile classics, rare early examples, and inscribed copies are now raising very high sums.
Peter and Iona Opie were aware of the importance of the large heritage of children's literature long before juvenilia was generally considered worthy of notice. They formed much of their collection of more than 20,000 items - many of which are of great rarity - in the 1940s and '50s, when a gem could be had for a few shillings.
Now their collection is being offered to the Bodleian Library in Oxford for .5 million, which represents only half its current market value. The fund-raising call comes at an interesting moment. Not only is one of the greatest monuments to the heritage of children's literature in danger of being broken up and its research value lost, but the fundamental appreciation of juvenile literature of the present appears to be in question.
Mrs. Opie and her late husband have done much through their books on children's literature to draw attention to the development of the special creativity that adult writers have lavished on the young. Their collection represents an almost complete record of this development from its earliest in the 17th century to the present.
The Opies were rare and fortunate as married collectors: They shared a common interest. In almost four decades of their married life, they assembled a collection of children's books that is now acknowledged to be one of the finest of its kind in the world. But the Opies did not set out to form a great collection; rather it was an adjunct to their interest and their work.
Sitting at her large desk in the silent atmosphere of her book-lined study, Mrs. Opie recalls that she and her husband were devoted bibliofiles before they even met. ``We had what you might call a literary romance,'' she says. ``We had corresponded for ages before we actually met. I had collected old books from age of 14, but Peter collected contemporary literature. He was especially interested in the curious and the strange.''
The idea of collecting children's books, she says, came along with their first son. ``We were the sort of people who took every new experience very seriously. We were interested in everything connected with children, and that included nursery rhymes and books.''
``It all began when we were walking through a field near our home, one evening. A ladybird landed on a finger.'' Which, and whose finger, has been lost in obscurity, but one of them remembered the rhyme,
Ladybird, ladybird fly away home
Your house is on fire
and your children are gone.
What did it mean and where did it come from? They decided to find out, but were disappointed with the little they could find in published sources. The Opies were not ones to leave things in such an unsatisfactory state, and so began the Herculean task of discovering the obscure origins of the rhymes, which countless generations of children have known as well as their own names. In their spare time they collected all the information they could find. Their searches soon led them into collecting books and pamphlets.
Mrs. Opie says there was never much money to throw about. Each purchase required a sacrifice in the housekeeping budget. But by far the greater part of the investment that the Opies put into their collection was in time, knowledge, and patience. It proved invaluable.
What began as a passing interest grew into a serious study, and the Opies decided to aim for publication of the material they had collected. The project took seven years to complete, much of which required their full time, and a great deal of family support. When, in 1951, the Oxford University Press published The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, it was such an instant success that it rated a major article in The Times (London). The dictionary remains the definitive work on the subject and sales are still growing.
Other books followed and the growing collection continued to provide the major source of information. ``It's a working collection; it has to earn its keep,'' says Mrs. Opie. ``The Oxford Book of Children's Verse,'' ``A Nusery Campanion,'' and ``The Classic Fairy Tales'' were published over the next 25 years, and all drew heavily on the resources of the collection.
Mrs. Opie is convinced that there is much more potential for research in the collection. ``There is more material to be added to the Dictionary, and so many aspects of social history are just waiting to be researched in the collection - the developing attitude towards the education of girls for instance.''
But she says the task is not for her. ``The Opies,'' she says, ``have done their bit.''
She wishes only that others may continue where they have left off and have the benefit of all the collection has yet to reveal.
When the need to dispose of the collection arose after her husband's passing, Mrs. Opie's first impulse was to give it away. Second thoughts caused her to recognize the sacrifices the whole family had made over the years, and she is now giving away half the collection. If the need to raise the funds for the remaining half will help to bring to public notice the great value to children's development of literature written just for them, then the Opie Collection will be still ``earning its keep.''
The Bodleian Opie Appeal is being organized by the Friends of the Bodleian, the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Its patron, Prince Charles, is contributing all further royalties from his children's book ``The Old Man of Lochnagar'' to the appeal.
An exhibition (in aid of the appeal) of favorites and highlights from the Opie Collection is to be held at the Bodleian Library June 9 through October.