HomeJean Marzollo, author of I SPY



I SPY 25 Years & 25 Thanks by Jean Marzollo May 2016

When I SPY was 20 years old in 2011, I was inspired to write thank you notes to all the people who were, to me, very much a part of its success.  Now that I SPY is 25 years old in 2016, I’d like to repeat the first 20 thank you notes and add 5 new notes at the end.

1.  First of all, thanks to Walter Wick, the incredible I SPY photographer, for his unique artistic eye, superb imagination, well-honed photographic skills, and brilliant puzzle making creativity. Thanks also to his wife, Linda Cheverton-Wick, who supported I SPY's development from the start.

2.  I will talk more about Walter's photos later, but first I want to go back to the time before I SPY. I'd like to give thanks to my parents, Ruth and Richard Martin, for giving me when I was young a love of rhythmic, rhyming poetry.  That love is reflected in I SPY.

3.  Thanks to Scholastic, Inc. for hiring me, a 30-year-old ex-high school English teacher, in 1972 to be editor of Let's Find Out, a kindergarten magazine.  I kept this wonderful job for 20 years, during which I met Walter. (More later, as promised.)

4.  Thanks to Dorothy H. Cohen, author and professor at Bank Street College of Education, the academic adviser assigned to me by Scholastic.  Everything Dorothy taught me about the wants, needs, and interests of 5-year-olds is reflected in I SPY.  Thanks also to my other fine advisers: Bernard (Bud) Spodek, Ellen Booth Church and other teachers who patiently went over every issue of Let's Find Out to help the magazine be the best it could be.

5.  Thanks to Russ D'Anna, ex-Special Forces and wonderful art director at Scholastic, for hiring as the designer of Let's Find Out Carol Devine Carson, a newcomer to New York City, fresh from Nashville with $40 and an adorable 5-year-old son named Alex, who would join her as soon as she got a job.  Carol taught me the importance of good design and introduced me to deadpan Southern humor.  Today, a highly esteemed art director for Knopf Publishers Adult Trade Division, Carol has designed book jackets for John Updike, Joan Didion, Alice Munro, Bill Clinton, and Pope John Paul II.  In 1990 Carol designed the first I SPY book.

6.  Thanks to The Sixties, when Head Start and Sesame Street started.  The education of young children was newly respected, deeply thoughtful, joyful, and federally funded.  Under the leadership of Henry Wolf, Sesame Street Magazine (started in 1970) used top-notch illustrators, such as Jim McMullan and Simms Taback.  Guess what?  Carol and I used them, too.  Carol's good taste is reflected in I SPY.

7.  Thanks to Phyllis Fogelman, publisher at Dial Books for Young Readers, who published in 1978 my first children's book, a lullaby called Close Your Eyes.  Phyllis taught me an important lesson: "Rhythm and rhyme has to flow naturally," she said.  "You can't force it."  Her advice is reflected in the I SPY rhymes.  Thanks also to Susan Jeffers, dear friend and wonderful illustrator of Close Your Eyes, for introducing me to Phyllis.

8.  It's time to thank my terrific husband and "consigliere," Claudio Marzollo.  He has many wonderful qualities, but thankfully for me and I SPY, he is not a natural reader of rhythm and rhyme.  If the I SPY rhymes sound good when Claudio reads them aloud, they pass the Phyllis test. But now I've jumped ahead.

9.  I thank again Walter, who, while cleaning his studio one day, stopped to arrange and take a picture of things he was sorting.  He liked the photo well enough to send copies to art directors for magazines and books in NYC.  Looking at his promotional card, Carol said, "This could be a new look for us."  As it turned out, we were the only ones who called Walter.  "We'd like you to make a huge poster of buttons, barrettes, paper clips, rubber bands, and so on. It will be called Fasteners," said Carol. "These are objects that 5-year-olds understand," I added. Walter made a fabulous poster that teachers, kids, and people at Scholastic hung on their walls to enjoy.  We hired Walter to make more pictures of blocks, toys, leaves, and rocks. Little did we know that they were precursors to I SPY.

10.  Thanks to Bernette Ford, editorial director of Cartwheel Books at Scholastic, and editor Grace Maccarone for suggesting one day that I ask Walter and Carol if they would like to work with me on a book.  I asked them and guess what? They both said yes, and that was the beginning of I SPY.  Bernette and Grace nurtured all eight original I SPY books carefully and well.

11. While Walter had never made a book for young children, he was open to learning about the "wants, needs, and interests of 5-year-olds."  He, Carol and I went back and forth as we worked.  Walter Fed Ex'd me Polaroids that were so much fun to see that I started to open them in the driveway so the female Fed Ex driver could see them, too.  Knowing puzzles, he said there had to be only one correct answer to each item in the riddle.  Hoping that kids would write more I SPY riddles for the pictures, I asked him to put in lots of rhyming objects. When he put in a zipper, I suggested a Big Dipper, and he put one in the stars.  Knowing that he needed freedom, I wrote riddles as he worked or after he was done.  Knowing that I wanted everything to be appropriate and understandable to 5-year-olds, he asked questions about certain things he was putting in the pictures. Fishhook, okay? Yes. Carol advised Walter when he asked for help and prepared the mechanicals for the book.  We had a "packagers" deal with Scholastic to provide camera-ready materials.  This was 1990-91 - before computers and Photoshop.  Carol marked up the I SPY manuscript with her font and size choices and sent it out to a typesetter, who sent back a "galley" of all the riddles printed on big sheets.  When I saw the galley, I was thrilled to see so many interesting words used in simple rhymes.  I never would have imagined that I could write a four-line verse using the words starfish, feather, baby's footprint, rattle, bells, crab, fork, and seashells.  Carol cut out the verses and pasted them into the special design she had created for I SPY.  

12.  Thanks for the simple, exciting vocabulary of five-year-olds.  I arranged their lively, concrete words into a four-foot pattern called "dactylic tetrameter," the same meter used in "Old Mother Hubbard Went to the Cupboard" and "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."  It's a nifty meter for telling stories to children.  And I SPY is a story - the main character of which is the "I" in I SPY, the child who solves the riddles.

13.  Thanks to unintended consequences! Walter, Carol and I expected that I SPY would be liked by young kids, but we never expected that I SPY would be so well liked by older kids and grownups.  It turns out that everyone likes a good jellybean hunt, and I SPY is a grand one.

14.  Thanks to fourth graders in Miami who taught me that you can rap I SPY.  They were right!  Rap has a 4 beat line, too.  

15. Thanks to many, many "book" people at Scholastic who over the last 20 years have done a superb job editing, art directing, printing, publicizing, promoting and selling I SPY through book clubs, book fairs, and stores.  And thanks to the many people at Scholastic Media who not only made an I SPY TV show, but also brought I SPY into the world of new technology with I SPY games for Wii, Nintendo DS, iPhone apps, Leapster, CD-ROMs, iDVDs, as well other great I SPY products, such as Venture I SPY Play-Mats and Briarpatch I SPY puzzles, card games and board games.  I am sorry that I can't name everyone, but you know who you are.  I am especially grateful to the wise Francie Alexander, Scholastic's Chief Academic Officer, and to my very talented current book editors, Ken Geist and his assistant Michael Croland.

16.  Thanks to my sons, Dan Marzollo and Dave Marzollo, teenagers when the first I SPY book was published.  The fact that they took it to parties back then was my first clue that I SPY was "cool" for all ages.  Now adults, Dan and Dave are expert I SPY riddle writers and have helped me write over 20 I SPY books.  They "get" the rhythm and rhyme scheme of I SPY, and they know where everything is in all the I SPY books.  Because Walter Wick's pictures are so richly fascinating and because he put in so many rhyming objects, Dan, Dave and I are happy to revisit the photos and write brand new challenging riddles for new I SPY books.

17.  Thanks to my agent Molly Friedrich for her brilliant, cheerful, savvy help over the years and also to her smart, hard-working, and lovely daughter Lucy Carson, who has joined The Friedrich Agency. Thanks also to my very efficient and well-organized assistant / web master Donna Cotennec, to my gracious and strategic lawyer Camille Linson, and to Byron Stinson and Brett Watanabe for solid business advice. Thanks deeply to my writing group mentors Patricia Adams and Irene O'Garden.

18.  Thanks to all the schools, teachers, librarians, and principals who have invited me to visit them.  Schools are where I keep up and learn over and over again that young children's "wants, needs, and interests" are the same as ever.  They want to learn, they need appropriate help on their level, and they are interested in anything that is meaningful and/or fun.

19. Thanks also to I SPY parents.  Oh, my goodness, how grateful I am for the parents who come up to me year after year and tell me how much they have enjoyed playing I SPY with their kids.   Because I SPY employs the language of 5-year-olds to challenge kids of all ages to find things in Walter's intricate, clever pictures, everyone who plays is on the same level.  Many times, kids beat their parents in finding something really hard, and then, of course, their parents smile with glee.  It's a win-win.

20.  Last of all, I thank kids.  I enjoy the company of kids; I find them eager, original, and interesting.  After I spoke a few years ago in a Brooklyn school, a kindergarten girl came up to me and handed me a brand new pink eraser, quietly saying, "This is for you."  It was the kind of eraser with sloping sides at the front and back.  I still have it.  It's a perfect I SPY object.  In March this year I received a letter from an 8-year-old boy named Cale, who lives in the Midwest. Cale wrote, "I like I SPY because it is very hard. Some things are very close to other things. It is a really big place."

21.  I would like to thank University Games for buying and supporting Briarpatch games and also thank Lynne Karppi at Scholastic Media for making (with the help of my son Dan) new, short I SPY books translated into various languages for fast food restaurants, such as Burger King.

22.  I would like to thank the English teachers I had at Manchester High School in the ’50’s.  They were terrific, both in the teaching of literature and of grammar.  When I went to UConn (University of Connecticut), I thought I would be a Home Economics major because I enjoyed cooking and sewing.  In my junior year I switched to an English major because I continued to enjoy literature and grammar.  One semester I asked my English teacher if I could write stories and essays to show him instead of going to class, and he said yes.  I found writing to be comfortable and wanted to try it out on a regular basis.  I thank this teacher for being so flexible.

23.  One day I saw on a bulletin board at UConn an ad for the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  Good idea!  My mother was a school teacher.  Maybe I could be one too so I applied and was accepted.  Harvard set me on a path that, step by step, worked out for me.  I became a high school English teacher, then worked in Harvard’s Project Upward Bound, and then moved to New York City to work at General Learning Corporation started by Frank Keppel, who had been the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

24. At General Learning Corporation I learned about free-lancers, writers who submitted manuscripts for educational materials that a company could produce.  It wasn’t long before I left GLC and started free-lancing.  I liked to make things!  On a free-lance basis I helped to write the first printed guides to Sesame Street, and then, thanks to word of mouth I heard about the Scholastic Let’s Find Out free-lance job.  Perfect!  (See #3 above.)  I am grateful to the Harvard Graduate School of Education for setting me on a path that eventually led to my becoming an author of children’s books.

25.  Last, but certainly not least, I am deeply grateful to both Scholastic President Richard (Dick) Robinson and his father M.R. (Robbie) Robinson.  I still remember Robbie’s cheerful, friendly face when he walked around the mid-town offices of Scholastic in the 70’s.  He founded Scholastic in 1920.  I was inspired by both Dick Robinson and Robbie Robinson’s dedication to the publishing of interesting and meaningful educational materials for children of all ages.  I thank them for making sure that I had excellent educational consultants (see #4 above) to make sure that Let’s Find Out would be the best it could be.

To each and every one of you mentioned in my 25 notes above, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.


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