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"Meet the Author"
interview 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 Find Out.

IB: Where did you grow up? How did your background prepare you to communicate with children?

imageJM: 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 three. 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 a bookstore, but we had a nice town library with a large children’s room. 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 don’t remember 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 of Verses, 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 Orphan Annie”; mine was “My Shadow.” Clearly, these magical, intimate moments appealed 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, original, creative.

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 walked home from school with my friends, and we played in each other’s houses. 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 never been. 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 of stories that I loved as a child. I guess I write to teach, and I hope I write well. The 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 early childhood 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 of children with rich, concrete details. From Bernard Spodek of the University of Illinois and a past president of NAEYC, I learned how traditional stories can 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 at Teachers College, I learned about multicultural education. From Ellen Booth 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 learned more and more about children, and ever since I have drawn on that experience to create my books. I SPY grew out of Let’s Find Out. It has all the qualities that 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. I rarely work at night or on weekends. I am very disciplined to work every day. I usually 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 so I would have important looking papers to file. About 10 years ago I started painting and added a painting studio onto my office. Early childhood people 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 your writing?

JM: Books get branded today. Companies morph them into products of varying quality. Teachers need to realize that authors don’t necessarily have control 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 experience. 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, the 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 with children in classroom settings. I want to see what they like, what bores them, what makes them laugh, what’s too hard to understand, and so forth. I want 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 like these 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 Readers are rife with humor. As I write them, I hear Shanna and her sidekicks say things. 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 the spirit and read it aloud with hip-hop rhythm and sway. That was so much fun and so rewarding for me! Here’s how that book starts: Welcome to the Shanna Show! Everyone is good to go. Hands, clap. Fingers, snap, Toes, tap. We rap! 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, Ramps, and 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 kindergartners. 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. I remember 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 then 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 child 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 science readers, one of which is I Am a Seed. In this book, a marigold seed and a pumpkin 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 and family.

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, Miriam and Her Brother Moses, David and Goliath, and Jonah and the Whale (and the Worm). I love the Bible stories. They are rich with memorable characters, important moral lessons, exciting drama, and, in my retellings, a bit of humor, 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? Yes, but 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, and now illustrator. What’s next?


Beyond the Journal / Young Children on the Web / November 2004


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