Inspiring Young Readers

posted on 21 Jun 2018

The classic years of I-Spy books

I’m not sure when it happens but lots of children – and in my experience boys more than girls – reach an age (maybe 8 or 9?) when an urge to collect and classify stuff seems to kick in. That was true of me although I wasn’t really very good at it and didn’t show any real commitment. My older brother had gone through a short phase of bus number spotting and collecting which he went about with a typical meticulousness that involved complicated combinations of notebooks and columns of numbers in different coloured inks. I was, albeit briefly, fascinated.

These books, along with a selection of pens and pencils, sandwiches and drinks would be stowed in a duffle bag and off he’d go with a couple of friends to stand outside bus garages and on street corners as buses that all looked remarkably similar went by. The only real variable was the number painted in small letters on the side of the bus that could be added to one of the book’s columns or maybe deleted from another.

The problem for me was that I loved all the accoutrements and ritual but buses bored me to death – even though I was reluctant to admit it. Actually, I felt the same about trains, trees, butterflies, small rodents, birds and any number of things other people seemed to think it was worth ‘collecting’ a sighting of. I wanted to be interested because I wanted to collect – but I just wasn’t. And so the urge to list whatever it was lasted maybe a couple of days and then died. In any case I was rubbish at it too because I couldn’t sustain the systematic care needed to reference and cross reference lists of numbers or whatever.

Even now when I hear people waxing lyrical about plants or trees or birds I can’t resist the overwhelming urge to think, ‘Nah. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.’

But clearly for some children the spotting and collecting bug is a genuine fascination and it’s probably with that audience in mind that the original I-Spy books were created. They were a pocket-sized creation of Charles Warrell, an English school teacher who spotted the potential in producing books that had their own check-lists and spotters guides for children who had the collecting bug. Each book would be given over to a different topic – cars, trees, plants etc. – and they would be professionally produced but inexpensive. However, Warrell struggled to sell the idea to publishers and eventually he was forced to publish them himself. The first I-Spy book hit the shops in 1949 and they were an instant success because he was able to market them through Woolworths stores by pulling in a favour from a friend who worked for the company.

Warrell’s real triumph however was adding something different to the experience and providing an incentive for children to complete the books and move on to another. When a book had been completed and all the ‘spies’ had been made, children were encouraged to send the books back to Warrell under his guise as ‘Big Chief I-Spy’ and get a badge of merit and a feather (continuing the bogus red-Indian theme I suppose).

By 1953 the I-Spy club had half a million members and were holding regular events, or as Warrell (rather tiresomely) called them, the pow-wows. The success continued undiminished until 1956 when Warrell finally retired and the job of getting the new titles out moved from publisher to publisher until the format was itself retired in the mid-1980s having sold 25 million copies across the globe.

A new generation of I-Spy books was started up again in the 1990s when the current publisher, Michelin, got hold of the copyright but in truth I’ve never seen this new incarnation.

I know I-Spy books are quite nostalgic for people of my generation (I was born in the 1950s) but in all honesty they don’t have that glow for me. I was aware of them and I did want to have them myself – not because I was really interested but because I had friends who were crazy for them and I didn’t want to be left out. But I seem to recall that they were pretty much a middle class play thing – bought by parents for their children – and too expensive for me to buy and certainly not something my parents could afford on a very tight income.

Children who made themselves part of the I-Spy family almost certainly went on to have a flirtation with their adult equivalent, the Observer Books series. These were ‘spotter’ books dressed up differently for an adult audience – so no certificates, badges or big chiefs – but in essence they performed the same task. I could never abide the Observer series because it would always conjure up in my mind an over-enthusiastic parent (almost certainly an embarrassing dad), trips to the countryside or even worse, camping, tedious attention to detail and a proclivity for memorising as many boring facts about stuff as possible.

Not being able to afford I-Spy or Observer books and having to rely on a plain notebook and pen turned out to be the best discipline I could have had because it really tested whether I was genuinely interested in something or not. It largely turns out I wasn’t – so think of all the money I saved and all the sweets and ice-cream I bought instead.

Terry Potter

June 2018