April 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

“I Spy” Author Jean Marzollo Remembered for Her Generosity, Love of Words

When a grant came to finally renovate the children’s room at the Butterfield Public Library in Cold Spring, NY, the library staff knew immediately who they wanted to honor with its name. Long-time community member and famed children’s author Jean Marzollo was the only choice, says library director Gillian Thorpe. But they had to convince Marzollo.

“She didn’t have one ounce of ego in her,” Thorpe says of the best-selling author of the “I Spy” series, who died April 10 at age 75.

Marzollo eventually agreed to the “Jean Marzollo Children’s Room” request because she knew it would help the renovation’s cause. The library held a fundraising event in November, and Marzollo attended and spoke about her writing and “I Spy.” The event was originally planned for this spring but moved to last fall.

“I’m so thankful we did do that, because it was a great chance to honor her,” says Thorpe.

Soon enough, local children will sit down with an edition of I Spy in Marzollo’s namesake room. “I can’t wait to honor her and her memory with it and keep her alive that way,” says Thorpe.

Finding Joy in language

For Marzollo, Thorpe says, the joy was in the words.

“She just loved words,” Thorpe says. “She loved to play with them. She loved the rhyme. She talked about the sound of them. So when somebody else got that, I saw her many times get so excited.”

Marzollo published more than 100 children’s books, but will always be known best for the “I Spy” series, a collaboration with artist and photographer Walter Wick.

“I Spy sprang from a previous collaboration, its success was a complete surprise to both of us, and it changed our lives,” Wick wrote in a Facebook post. “It was Jean who recognized the educational potential of I Spy, and her ability to articulate those values made me a better illustrator. Her writing, so seemingly simple, was in fact carefully honed to provide young readers with the richest vocabulary-building experience possible. Simply put, the I Spy series would not be what it is without Jean Marzollo. She was a force in children’s book literature and early childhood education circles and will be sorely missed.”

Thorpe owned “I Spy” books as a child, purchased by her parents who knew Marzollo from the community. The author was a member of the board of education with Thorpe’s father when Thorpe was a high school student. When Thorpe started working at the library 18 years ago, Marzollo called and asked what she could do to help.

“I said, ‘Well, Jean, everybody wants to be a children’s author,’” Thorpe recalls. “ ‘I have people calling me up and reading manuscripts [to me]. Would you do a workshop?’”

Marzollo did, and Thorpe had to turn people away. In later years, the author would call and ask Thorpe if she could get a group of children together so she could workshop a book-in-progress.

“She’d come down to the library and try out a book there,” says Thorpe. “It was a personal relationship with an author who happened to be famous.”

You didn’t have to live in her town to get that type of treatment from Marzollo. When former school librarian Shannon Miller’s fourth grade students wanted to create their own “I Spy” book, Miller reached out to Marzollo for a possible Skype visit to her classroom. The author didn’t just drop in for a Skype chat. She sent some instructions for the students beforehand and even continued to work with them online and offer her input after. It’s a story so great that Miller uses it to open keynote addresses.

“It was one of the most special experiences I had as a librarian and teacher,” says Miller. “I know the students will always remember it too.”

The conversation went above and beyond the typical Skype communication in other ways.

“She took such care in speaking to every one of the students, giving them praise, advice and suggestions on how to make their I Spy story better,” says Miller.  “She made sure they all felt like authors, just like her, on that day.”

Marzollo was born and raised in Manchester, CT.  She graduated from the University of Connecticut and the Harvard Graduate School of Education before embarking on a career serving children. She was a high school English teacher in Arlington, MA, then worked at Harvard’s Project Upward Bound before moving to New York City to work on early childhood research projects. She was the editor of Scholastic’s Let’s Find Out Magazine for 20 years.

She taught high school English in Arlington, MA (1965–66) and was the assistant director of Harvard’s Project Upward Bound (1967). In New York City, she worked on early childhood research projects for General Learning Corp. (1967–69) and was the Director of Publications for the National Commission on Resources for Youth (1970–71). For 20 years (1972–92), she was editor of Scholastic’s Let’s Find Out Magazine.

She and her husband Claudio moved to Cold Spring and became entrenched in the community.

“She was so well-respected, she just commanded the room,” says Thorpe. “She’s a little local hero.”

U.S. Representative Sean Patrick Maloney even released a statement following Marzollo’s death.

“Jean Marzollo was a Hudson Valley treasure who brought education and wonder to millions of children and parents. I remember enjoying her work—especially the I Spy series—with my own children,” Maloney said in the statement. “Jean was a personal friend and neighbor—she danced at my wedding and baked cookies with my kids. She was a passionate voice for education and a stalwart booster of the Haldane School District. This is a tragic loss for the Cold Spring community. Randy and I offer Claudio and her entire family our condolences during this difficult time. Jean’s intellect and decency sparkled in this life and she will be missed.”


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Kara Yorio About Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.



  1. this is a good book because it is a fun book and it gets your brain working it can work for babies kids teens adults and even elders

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