I SPY Celebrates 20 Years of Popularity

Birthday Bash for series and author Jean Marzollo at Butterfield this Sunday

By Alison Rooney

The I SPY books seem to have been around forever, a comforting staple of childhood along with Goodnight Moon and Green Eggs and Ham. In fact they are not old-timers, but a mere 20 years of age. Perhaps it’s because so many adults, when reading these to or with their children, get so engrossed in the visual treasure hunt lure of these popular books, written by Cold Spring’s Jean Marzollo, that they fold them into their own memory and, having partaken of them experientially, come to think of them as part of their own past. A birthday party will be thrown for these books (and by default, their author) this Sunday, April 3, from 3 to 5 p.m. at Butterfield Library.
       Jean Marzollo was read to frequently during her Connecticut childhood.  Her parents had to memorize poems in their youth, and were able to say them by heart rather than fumble with pages.  The rhythms and meters became ingrained in parents and child.  Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse collection was a particular favorite.  Working first as a high school English teacher, and then as an early childhood researcher, Marzollo moved into publishing, working for 20 years (1972-92) as editor of Scholastic’s kindergarten-aimed Let’s Find Out magazine, working with noted art director Carol Devine Carson. Marzollo made her first forays into children’s book writing during the mid-seventies, co-authoring a few with her husband, Claudio.
       As Let’s Find Out was a monthly publication, there was plenty of time to develop lasting relationships with top children’s illustrators and writers and to get a first look at many talented artists new to the field, eager to get a break at Scholastic. Susan Jeffers, a 1979 Caldecott winner was one of those prominent illustrators courted by Scholastic.  Marzollo decided to show Jeffers a poem of her own.  Jeffers responded to what was conjured up by the rhyming text, and a book for young children, Close Your Eyes, was born.  A prolific period of writing ensued, and the books included beginning reader titles and young adult fiction as well as activity books for young children.  In each of the illustrated books, the words came first, and the publisher chose the artist, a common occurrence in the world of children’s picture books, according to Marzollo. Here are Marzollo’s own words, borrowed from her website, on the genesis of I SPY: 

“In 1986 a photographer named Walter Wick sent Carol a promotional picture of hardware store type objects floating in space. Carol suggested that his work could give our magazine a new look. I agreed. Walter’s photo was perfect for kindergarten because it was fun to look at, beautiful, and clear. We met with Walter and gave him a job: to make a big poster called “Fasteners,” styled the same way “¦ [a book was suggested] “¦ We discussed what the book would be like. I remember that, at one point, editor Grace Maccarone mentioned the kids’ game “I Spy With My Little Eye.” I wrote that down and eventually used the words “I spy” to start every riddle. Those two little words are very powerful because they establish the main character and the story of the book. The main character is the reader — or the child being read to. The story is about the main character becoming a hero by finding everything in the riddle “¦ I am grateful that Walter was not only an excellent photographer but also an experienced creator of photographic games and puzzles.      

Jean Marzollo

And I am grateful that I was in a kindergarten frame of mind when I wrote I SPY. It never occurred to me to write the riddles for older children. Had I done that, younger kids would not be able to be I SPY heroes. I couldn’t write the riddles before Walter made the photos. That would have inhibited his creativity. We worked together, discussing ideas, words, rhymes, and rough drafts (Polaroids). I kept notes and, after the final photo was done, I wrote the final riddle.
       I was very pleasantly surprised to learn that because I SPY works for kindergartners, it also works for ages 5 and up. Walter’s photographs are beautiful, clear, and sophisticated so older kids, teenagers, parents and grandparents all enjoy being I SPY heroes, too. As the years have gone by, I’ve learned that many English language learners and special education learners enjoy I SPY, as well. It seems that most everyone likes a jelly bean hunt, and I SPY is a grand one.” 

In a talk with Philipstown.info, which took place inside her charming, playful workroom, filled with almost as many eye-catching objects as an I SPY page, Marzollo expanded on this: “There’s no knowledge base needed with I SPY — everything is concrete, the child’s world, a child’s vocabulary of familiar objects.  The hunting game is the challenge for grown-ups and kids to play together.”  Speaking in more detail of Walter Wick, Marzollo explained that , he “hadn’t done things for young kids before.  If he did anything ‘too old,’ I told him.  He could really arrange and hide things well — a lucky combination.”   There was immediate excitement at the publishing house over I SPY and this translated into rapid sales, which in turn created the demand for the seven additional titles now part of the classic original collection of the series.  Newer titles include Challenger type books, board books for babies, beginning readers, phonics books, an upcoming sticker book, and with the advent of the digital age, I SPY Wii, Nintendo DS, iphone apps, Leapster, iDVDs, CD-Roms, as well as an I SPY TV show. Truly I SPY an empire of words and objects.
       Jean and Claudio Marzollo’s sons Dan and Dave Marzollo have helped with the creation of the latest volumes, including this year’s model, I SPY’s 20 Anniversary. The newest volumes re-use some of the old images, but all-new original riddles have been created, using different aspects of the same object.  Employing “beak” instead of “bird” for example.  There are plenty to choose from. No one has done an exact count but Jean Marzollo estimates that there are from “five to ten thousand objects in the first 8 books.”
       Marzollo’s latest books have taken her into non-I SPY realms: Pierre the Penguin is a true story about an ostracized bird and the novel way he is assisted in fitting back in with his peers.  Marzollo took an early draft of this with sketches to Philipstown Rec, to test read it to the children there, something she has done many, many times over the years at Haldane.  She says “I am a teacher at heart and I always write for a class; most people write for children to be read to on laps.” Another new one is called The Little Plant Doctor, and its subject is the young George Washington Carver, whom Marzollo had been interested in since visiting the Carver National Monument years ago during a conference in Missouri.  It is told from the perspective of a tree.
       When Philipstown.info expressed amazement at how prolific Marzollo has been, she put it into perspective: “Well, I’ve been doing this for a long time. It used to be that the publishing system encouraged authors of children’s books to have two come out a year, one in the fall and one in the spring.   After 40 years, that’s 80 books.  I have less time now, but in reality I’ve always loved it.  It’s always more fun than work.” Any aspiring children’s book writers should heed these words of advice Marzollo received when she was beginning in the field: “If you want to write for children you need to listen to them and how they talk.” 

For more information on Jean Marzollo, the I SPY books and all of her other work, visit http://www.jeanmarzollo.com/.  For details on Sunday’s party visit www.butterfieldlibrary.org/
Photo by A. Rooney

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