"Meet the Author"
with Jean Marzollo by Isabell Baker
From "Young Children: Journal of the National Association for the Education
of Young Children,"
November 2004, Isabel Baker, MAT, MLS, is president of The Book Vine for
Children, a national
company dedicated to getting good books into the hands of preschool children
and their teachers. Jean
Marzollo is the award-winning
author of more than 100 books for children, including the popular I SPY series and the acclaimed Shanna's First Readers series. She is an early childhood expert, a former teacher,
and the former editor of Scholastic's kindergarten magazine Let's
IB: Where did you grow up?
How did your background prepare you to communicate with children?
JM: My earliest memory is of crazy
grown-ups, including my parents, dancing
around a bonfire at the bottom of our street. Some of them threw their
shoes into the fire! Why would grown-ups do that? Later in life, I realized
that they were celebrating the end of World War II. It was 1945, and
I was born in and grew up in Manchester, Connecticut, just east of Hartford.
People in Manchester struggled to pay their bills. We didn’t have
bookstore, but we had a nice town library with a large children’s
If I went there now, I could show you exactly where the Betty Cavana
romances were that I read as a teenager. Going to the library was routine.
At my mother’s funeral a woman came up to me and said, “You
me,” and I replied, “Yes, I do. You’re the librarian.”
In my family we read because we liked to read. My Irish mother loved
poetry and her favorite book to read to us was A Child’s Garden
by Robert Louis Stevenson. Sometimes we had a fire in the fireplace and
read poetry aloud as a family. My sister’s poem was “Little
mine was “My Shadow.” Clearly, these magical, intimate moments
to me. Perhaps they are why I write so often in rhythm and rhyme.
My father was 100 percent Vermont Yankee, with a great sense of humor
and a genuine appreciation for individuality. If I wanted to do something
different for a school report, he would encourage me to
take the risk. He taught me that it was fine to be different,
IB: What were you like
as a child?
JM: I was observant. When
I was four, I went with other
kids in the neighborhood to a play group run for a short
while by a neighbor. We sat in a circle in her basement,
and when she asked, “What does your father do?” I said,
“ My father doesn’t do anything. He goes to Hartford
every day, and my mother stays home and does all the work. I
didn’t have lessons or programmed after-school activities. I
home from school with my friends, and we played in each other’s
One of our favorite activities was playing school. When I write the Shanna
Show books, I remember that. I liked being the teacher; so does Shanna.
IB: What books influenced
you as a child? As an adult?
JM: I loved books that fed
my imagination with startling new images. My
favorites were The Country Bunny and the Little
Gold Shoes, Many Moons, The Golden Egg Book, and Make
Way for Ducklings. When I was older, I
loved The Wizard of Oz and Mary
Poppins. Today I love any well-written
story with an interesting plot that introduces me to places I’ve
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and
others in that series by Alexander
McCall Smith are good examples. Curiously, I don’t write the kind
that I loved as a child. I guess I write to teach, and I hope I write
author who most inspires me is Margaret Wise Brown, who studied children
in classroom settings. Her study of children inspired her poetry.
IB: Was there a
special adult or mentor in the development of your career?
JM: For 20 years I
was the editor of Let’s Find Out, Scholastic’s
magazine. I was fortunate to work with an outstanding art director, Carol
Devine Carson, and with superlative early childhood advisers. From Dorothy
Cohen of Bank Street College, I learned to meet the developmental needs
children with rich, concrete details. From Bernard Spodek of the University
Illinois and a past president of NAEYC, I learned how traditional stories
be told in ways that help children become socialized into contemporary
culture. From Ursula Davis, kindergarten teacher, I learned how a fabulous,
child-centered kindergarten can be run. From Leslie Williams, a professor
Teachers College, I learned about multicultural education. From Ellen
Church, an early childhood expert, I learned how educational games and
songs enable children to express their active, artistic minds.
I am grateful that I was editor of Let’s Find Out. Each year I
and more about children, and ever since I have drawn on that experience
create my books. I SPY grew out of Let’s Find Out. It has all the
my mentors taught me.
IB: What is your
work schedule, and where do you work?
JM: When my two sons
were growing up, I was lucky to be able to work at home.
I worked at home while they were at school and became used to that daily
schedule. Now that they are grown, I tend to start later and work later.
work at night or on weekends. I am very disciplined to work every day.
have several projects going on, so if one isn’t working I’ll
switch to another.
As a child, I loved playing office, and I still feel that way. I’ve
always liked to
have a desk with paper, envelopes, tape, paper clips, a stapler, and
so on. I
even like to file! When I was about eight, I sent away for tourism catalogs
would have important looking papers to file. About 10 years ago I started
painting and added a painting studio onto my office. Early childhood
like to say that play is a child’s work. In my home office, my
work is my play.
IB: How do children’s
books today reflect current culture? How has this influenced
JM: Books get branded
today. Companies morph them into products of varying
quality. Teachers need to realize that authors don’t necessarily
over these products. Both I SPY and Shanna have been made into TV shows
and I SPY has also been adapted for games, CD-ROMS, and other products.
As the author of the original books, I have mixed feelings about this
To the extent that the branded products hold true to my original goals
for the books, I am happy. I am especially thrilled with the I SPY CD-ROMS,
Briarpatch I SPY games, and Shanna’s TV Show, and I am grateful
to their creators
for listening intently to my advice and then going ahead with their own
skills to make excellent products.
Children are so open. They deserve the best. I test many of my books
children in classroom settings. I want to see what they like, what bores
what makes them laugh, what’s too hard to understand, and so forth.
to make sure that my books honor kids. When I watch some of today’s
popular children’s TV shows, I am appalled at the characters’ rude
language and actions
and at the shallow, self-centered feelings given to children. I don’t
shows. I can’t watch them. I couldn’t write for them.
IB: What role does
humor play in children’s books?
JM: Children love to
laugh, so whenever I can, I put humor in my books. Not all
books invite humor, however. The I SPY books, for example, are enormously
fun for children, but they are not actually funny. Shanna’s First
rife with humor. As I write them, I hear Shanna and her sidekicks say
It’s almost as if I’m watching real children (the child in
me included) act out
the story and I’m taking down dictation.
IB: What is your
most memorable school visit?
JM: My favorite school
visit last year was when I introduced Shanna’s Hip, Hop
Hooray for the first time to second-graders. They immediately caught
spirit and read it aloud with hip-hop rhythm and sway. That was so much
and so rewarding for me! Here’s how that book starts:
Welcome to the Shanna Show!
Everyone is good to go.
When I visit schools, I show a slide of the Balloon Popper in I SPY SCHOOL DAYS. (This wonderful photograph by Walter Wick, called “Levers,
Pulleys,” is also in I SPY GOLD CHALLENGER!) I ask for a volunteer
to come up and
explain how the Balloon Popper machine works. I watch for the most confident
hand in the air.
Usually teachers and librarians are clueless about this picture because
they’ve never stopped to scrutinize it. But some kids have, even
My volunteer comes up, takes the mike, and explains step by step what’s
going on in the photo. Sometimes the child can’t speak English
well so I supply
the nouns: clothespins, funnel, checker. Once a teacher came up and told
me that the boy I picked had a full-time aide because he is violent.
him as one of the most articulate Balloon Popper explainers I ever selected.
IB: What are some
of your favorite questions young children ask?
JM: “How old
are you?” I tell them the truth, and they go “Ooo-oooh,” and
it’s over with. What’s the big deal? To paraphrase Gloria
Steinem, “This is
what 62 looks like.”
I used to tell kids that when I was young, we didn’t have TV, computers,
Gameboys, PlayStation, videos, cell phones, CDs, and DVDs. One day a
asked, “Did you have electricity?” So I don’t spout
my pitiful list anymore. The
world is electronic and digital; kids can’t imagine it otherwise.
IB: Does one disastrous
experience stand out as memorable on your way to success?
JM: I’ve written
many, many easy-to-read books. The Shanna readers and the I
Spy readers are the latest examples. I have also written a series of
readers, one of which is I Am a Seed. In this book, a marigold seed and
seed discuss their development as plants. At one point the pumpkin seed
says, “My petals died. I’m round and green.” In the
first edition, that page
read, “My petals died. Now I have green balls!” Unfortunately,
it wasn’t until I read the printed book aloud to children and heard
their howls that I realized
that the phrase “green balls” was a big mistake.
IB: What is your
favorite way to spend your free time?
JM: I like watercolor
painting, reading, swimming, going for walks, enjoying my
husband’s Italian cooking, and of course being with my friends
IB: Is there anything
else you want to tell us—a word, story, or an anecdote for
children, parents, or teachers?
JM: The most exciting
development in my career is that I’ve started to illustrate
my books. So, far I’ve written and illustrated Ten Little Eggs for Harper
and four Bible story books for Little, Brown: Daniel in the Lions’ Den,
and Her Brother Moses, David and Goliath, and Jonah and the Whale (and
Worm). I love the Bible stories. They are rich with memorable characters,
important moral lessons, exciting drama, and, in my retellings, a bit
too. To look at all of my books, you can go to www.jeanmarzollo.com.
I adore painting. Do I wish that I had studied it when I was younger?
I didn’t. But that’s the way life is—you never know
what exciting new development
will happen. So far I’ve had four careers: teacher, editor, author,
illustrator. What’s next?
the Journal / Young
Children on the Web / November 2004