HomeJean Marzollo, author of I SPY

I SPY is a unique series of photographic picture books with rhyming riddles that help children search for hidden objects on the page.  "I think of each page as idealized chaos," says photographer Walter Wick.  "The game is to impose order on the chaos by finding things--sort of a hero's hide-and-seek."


Where did the idea for I SPY come from?

I SPY author Jean Marzollo and I SPY book designer Carol Devine Carson were for nineteen years the editor and art director of Scholastic's kindergarten magazine, Let's Find Out.  Intrigued by a photograph of ordinary objects sent to them by Walter Wick, they commissioned him to create several posters for their magazine.  The posters were so popular that they inspired the idea for a picture book.

How are the pictures and riddles created?

Marzollo and Wick conceptualize the pictures together.  Then Wick creates sets in his studio for each shot, using wood, fabric, toys, props, mirrors, and even baking soda for snow -- whatever resources are needed!  He hides things he has collected for the shot in the picture, discussing the objects with Marzollo to make sure that there are many rhyming possibilities and that the objects are appropriate for children.  Wick lights each set carefully to create the right shadows, depth, and mood.  Finally, when everything is perfect, he photographs the set with an 8" by 10" view camera.  Each set is then dismantled before the next one is created.  Sets survive only as photographs to inspire rhyming, riddle making, visual creativity, and the exciting challenge of the I SPY hunt.  Marzollo writes the final riddles from the final photographs.

Where do all of the items in the pictures come from?

They come from many places such as drawers, toy chests, cupboards, attics, basements, tag sales, flea markets, crafts shops, antique shops, school supply catalogs, five & dime stores, and generous friends and relatives.


Even though I SPY was conceived with children age 4-8 in mind, it became apparent soon after publication that the books appeal to all ages--toddlers, preschoolers, elementary school children, teenagers, parents, and grandparents.  Readers of all ages respond to the verbal and visual challenge of the books, delighting both in friendly competition and cooperative teamwork as they work to solve the riddles.  Interestingly, young children seem to be just as skillful as adults, and sometimes even more so!

How to use this guide

The I SPY books help children look at the world more carefully, use language more vividly, and think more creatively.   This guide contains general suggestions for helping students achieve these goals in the classroom.  Please adapt the activities to the level of your children.  Since parents enjoy the I SPY books, they might like to volunteer to assist with classroom I SPY activities.



Write New Extra Credit Riddles.

The Extra Credit Riddles in the back of each book enable children to continue the I SPY activity.  After the children finish solving the riddles, encourage them to find more rhyming objects in the pictures and write new extra credit riddles for each other to solve.

Rhyme Schemes.

Help children figure out that the rhyme scheme for the I SPY riddles is a-a-b-b, meaning that the first and second lines rhyme, and the third and fourth lines rhyme.  Analyze other poems for their rhyme schemes.  Two common ones you might find are: a-b-a-b and a-b-c-b.

Scanning for Rhythm.

Help children analyze the rhythm in their own riddles by asking such questions as, "Does your riddle keep a beat?  What is the beat?  Can you clap it?"  The basic I SPY rhythm has four main beats to a line.  Practice clapping these four beats.  Show older children how you can annotate rhythms.  Whenever a syllable is emphasized by the voice, a long slash (/) is written.  A less emphatic syllable is marked by writing a short slash (-).  When you "scan" a poem, you note the rhythm.  The I SPY rhymes scan with four main beats to a line. 

Interesting Lists.

Have your children make a list of their favorite things in one I SPY photograph.  Start a classroom collection of other interesting lists in literature, such as the shopping lists in James Thurber's picture book Many Moons and  the list of foods fed to Wilbur in E.B. White's novel Charlotte's Web.  Younger children might like to make a list of all the letters, words, and numbers they can find in the I SPY pictures.

Rebus Word Cards.

Have the children make a list of everything they are asked to find in one I SPY photograph.  Use these words to make rebus word cards.  (A rebus word card has a word printed on it along with a simple drawing or photo of the word.)  The children can use the rebus word cards to write stories about the I SPY photos.

Social Studies


Geography Posters.

Have the class list what an I SPY poster of the White House might include.  (Presidential seal, flags, historical documents, paintings, fireplaces, cars, telephones, and presidential pets.)  Collect pictures of the items and make an I SPY poster to display them.  Make similar posters for your town, county, and state governments.   Add rhymes as children write them.

Stamp Collection Bulletin Board.

Suggest that the children start a class stamp collection on the bulletin board.  Encourage the students to write I SPY riddles for the stamps and post them on the bulletin board for other students to solve.

Math and Science


Sorting and Classifying.

Discuss the themes of the I SPY pictures.   Some are obvious (round things) while others are unusual (things that make interesting silhouettes).  Discuss things in the pictures that fit and do not fit the themes.  List themes for science
I SPY pictures, such as winter things and things found on the beach.  Save the lists for future I SPY science project.


Discuss how objects are camouflaged by shape and color in the I SPY photographs.  Compare the hidden objects with animals that hide in nature.  Collect pictures of camouflaged animals for a camouflage bulletin board.

Counting and Graphing.

Select items in the various I SPY pictures to count and graph.  Some suggestions are: letters, numbers, stones, shells,  animals, and blocks.  Graphing activities can lead children to discover which objects are found most and least frequently in I SPY.

Foreign Languages


I SPY Translations.

Children studying foreign languages in your classroom can learn to read translated I SPY riddles.   Teachers, parents, and older students can prepare translations for them.

English as a Second Language.

Give children who do not yet speak English a tray of objects to match with  objects in the pictures.  Tutors can name and describe the objects aloud as the students find them.

Cooperative LeaRning


Sharing I SPY in Learning Centers.

I SPY books lend themselves to cooperative learning in learning centers.  Two or three children can easily share the book at one time.  Children enjoy helping each other find the objects.  After children have worked cooperatively, individual children often like to borrow the book to use alone.

Creating Your Own I SPY books.

Children can work together to make I SPY books.  They create the pictures by drawing them, making a collage from magazine cutouts, and/or by photographing real objects and people. They can write or dictate their own riddles.

I SPY Week.

Have children in lower grades share their I SPY books and the fruits of classroom I SPY activities with the higher grades during a special I SPY Week.  A school-wide I SPY book can be assembled with pages created by each class.  A highlight of the week might be the presentation of this book to the library.



Song Titles Inspire Pictures.

The song title, Silent Night, inspired the last picture in I SPY CHRISTMAS.  Ask the children to make I SPY pictures for more song titles.

Find the Musical Instruments.

Ask students to find the many musical instruments hidden in the I SPY pictures.

Singing I SPY Aloud.

Most of the I SPY riddles can be sung aloud to the tune of "Sweet Betsy from Pike."  Knowing this helps students write I SPY riddles with the same beat as those in the books.



Take Photographs of Collections.

Ask the children to collect 10-12 small objects in the classroom that would make a good I SPY picture.  Suggest they look for objects in their pockets, desks, lunch boxes, lockers, book  bags, backpacks, and learning centers.  Have them arrange the objects attractively on the floor and take a picture of them, using a Polaroid camera.  This is an excellent activity for parent volunteers to help with, particularly if they are handy with cameras.

Create Floating Pictures.

The objects in some of the I SPY photos look as if they're floating in air.  Ask the children to try to figure out how this affect is achieved.  The answer is that some of the objects are propped up underneath with wires and bits of clay, which the reader can't see.  Students can try this technique using clay and cut pieces of plastic straws.


Arrange objects with interesting shapes on special light-sensitive paper or fabric, available in art stores.  Follow the directions on the package for timing and developing.  Write riddles to go with the finished photograms.


Many of the objects photographed in the I SPY books are antiques.  Find some of these objects in the book and compare them with other familiar old and new objects.  Discuss the use of objects the children are not familiar with. If possible, take a class trip to an antique store, or invite an antique dealer to visit the classroom and tell about his/her work.  Questions you might want to ask the dealer are: "Are there any antiques in our school?" and "What kinds of things become valuable and why?"


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