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Jean Marzollo, Whose ‘I Spy’ Books Challenged Children, Dies at 75

Jean Marzollo, who sent millions of young children searching through elaborate photo collages for an eclectic collection of objects in her “I Spy” rhyming picture books, died Tuesday at her home in Cold Spring, New York. She was 75.

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, New York Times

Jean Marzollo, who sent millions of young children searching through elaborate photo collages for an eclectic collection of objects in her “I Spy” rhyming picture books, died Tuesday at her home in Cold Spring, New York. She was 75.

Her family announced her death. The cause was not given.

Marzollo wrote more than 150 children’s books, some factual, some fanciful, all imparting skills and information to young — often very young — readers.

There was “I’m a Seed” (1996, illustrated by Judith Moffatt), in which two seeds have a conversation and, over time, learn that they are different — one grows into a marigold, the other into a pumpkin plant.

There was “Ten Little Christmas Presents” (2008), in which 10 animals open gifts, one at a time — a counting lesson that also turns into a memory test when, on the last page, it asks readers to try to match each gift with the box it came out of.

Her signature, though, was the “I Spy” series, begun in 1992, in which Marzollo’s rhyming text invited the reader to try to find various objects and shapes in elaborate scenes photographed by Walter Wick. Every page was a visual adventure, the images often staged like an artwork.

One page suggested backstage at a theater, with evocative masks and costumes. Another was an aerial view of a seaside town, complete with clam shack and lighthouse. And the “I Spy” tasks Marzollo gave youngsters were more than just a game.

“While kids perceive that they are simply hunting for objects in a picture,” Jinny Gudmundsen, a columnist for Gannett Newspapers, wrote in 2006, describing a video-game version of the books, “this visual puzzle game actually teaches young children about visual discrimination, rhyming, vocabulary, word-object association and reading.”

Jean Martin was born on June 24, 1942, in Manchester, Connecticut. Her father, Richard, was Manchester city manager and had also been a state water commissioner. Her mother, the former Ruth Palmer Smith, taught high school biology.

Jean received a bachelor’s degree at the University of Connecticut in 1964 and a master’s degree in teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1965. After teaching high school in Arlington, Massachusetts, and serving as assistant director of Harvard’s Upward Bound program, she moved to New York City in 1967 to work on early childhood development projects for the General Learning Corp. In New York she also met a sculptor, Claudio Marzollo; they married in 1969.

She and some friends formed a company to write educational material for and about children, including a parent/teacher guide to “Sesame Street,” which had premiered on public television in 1969.

That led Marzollo into book writing, first for grown-ups. “Learn Through Play” was published in 1972, and she would write others for adults, like “Fathers & Babies” (1993), a baby-care book for dads, and “Your Maternity Leave” (1989), which carried the forthright subtitle “How to Leave Work, Have a Baby, and Go Back to Work Without Getting Lost, Trapped or Sandbagged Along the Way.”

But children’s books were her main interest. In 1972 she became editor of “Let’s Find Out,” a monthly magazine for kindergartners, and 1978 brought her first children’s book, “Close Your Eyes” (illustrated by Susan Jeffers), about a boy having trouble falling asleep.

Of the many that followed, one of her favorites was “Pierre the Penguin: A True Story” (2010, illustrated by Laura Regan). It is about a penguin at a California zoo whose caretaker makes the animal a wet suit because it is missing feathers.

“Using a cute (and catchy) rhyme, author Marzollo tells the true story of a bedraggled penguin and the human caretaker who hits upon the perfect solution to his problem,” wrote Terri Schlichenmeyer, author of the Bookworm Sez syndicated review column. She added that children “who have a problem with teasing will be able to identify with Pierre.” Another that Marzollo was particularly pleased with, her family said, was “Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King” (1993, illustrated by J. Brian Pinkney). In it she recognized the sensitivity of writing for a young audience. When dealing with King’s death, the text is sparse but straightforward.

“Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in 1968,” it says. However, in the book’s foreword, she advises those reading it to preschoolers to use their judgment.

“If you feel that the words ‘shot and killed’ on page 30 are inappropriate for the child or children you plan to read this book to, you may want to change the words and say simply that Martin Luther King ‘died’ in 1968,” she wrote. “It isn’t, after all, necessary for us to tell very young children the harsh details about Reverend King’s death in order to convey to them the central message of his inspirational leadership.”

But softening reality for young readers had its limits for her. In 1993, she and another children’s author, Kate McMullan, were invited to speak at Sag Harbor Elementary School on Long Island for an “author’s day.” But the ostensibly harmless event caused a local uproar when school officials objected to two small illustrations in McMullan’s book “The Noisy Giants’ Tea Party,” one of a boy running away after breaking a window with a basketball, the other of three men staggering out of a tavern.

When a school official explained that the intent of the event (which was eventually canceled) was not to prompt a discussion of social issues and values, Marzollo took umbrage.

“All literature is about values,” she told The New York Times. “I can’t name a picture book that is not about values. That’s why people read. Kindergarten teachers impose values on children all day long. They say, ‘Let’s clean up.’ ‘Let’s not hit each other.’ ‘Let’s not run in the hall.’ If something in a book triggers a discussion, that’s a teachable moment.”

There was no controversy surrounding Marzollo’s “I Spy” books, just a demand for more of them.

The eight original “I Spy” books led to spinoffs like an “I Spy Challenger” series, with extra-hard puzzles. The concept was adapted for the digital age, first with a CD-ROM, then with video-game version for Nintendo, Leapster and other platforms. The original “I Spy” books have been translated into more than 20 languages.

Marzollo is survived by her husband; two sons, Dan and David; a brother, Allen Martin; a sister, Katherine Martin Widmer; and three grandchildren.

Last year the Butterfield Memorial Library in Cold Spring, where the Marzollos had lived for many years, announced that its newly renovated children’s room would be named for Marzollo.

She had served for eight years on the Haldane School Board, which encompasses Cold Spring, including two as its president. Sean Patrick Maloney, a congressman whose district includes Cold Spring, this week called Marzollo “a passionate voice for education and a stalwart booster of the Haldane School District.” At the end of “I’m a Seed,” the marigold explains to the pumpkin what is inside each of them.

“Seeds,” the marigold says. “When my seeds are planted, they will become new marigolds.”

To which the pumpkin replies, “When my seeds are planted, they will become new pumpkins. There should be a name for it.”

Says the marigold: “There is. It’s called life.”

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