I-Spy a classic book series

The I-Spy series have been enthusing children for 70 years. Picture: Maya23K/getty Images

The I-Spy series have been enthusing children for 70 years. Picture: Maya23K/getty Images - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

I-Spy books are 70 years old this year - did you spot that?

I Spy on a car journey - one of the modern I-Spy books. Picture: Collins/Michelin

I Spy on a car journey - one of the modern I-Spy books. Picture: Collins/Michelin - Credit: Archant

Do children do I Spy any more?

And I do not talk of the popular game played during family outings in order to defuse the constant cry of “Are we nearly there, yet?”

I speak of the series of books which were extremely popular in the 60s, especially designed to keep children occupied during the summer holidays.

I recall when my mum gave me a shilling and told me to go and buy a couple of I-Spy books for myself. This was in advance of me spending a week with auntie Millie in Haddiscoe. It was, perhaps, prompted by guilt ? mum recognising that a 10-year-old girl might get a little bit bored staying a whole seven days in the countryside with ageing relatives.

I spied a sparrow but never got to tick off the greater spotted woodpecker in my I-Spy birds. Pictur

I spied a sparrow but never got to tick off the greater spotted woodpecker in my I-Spy birds. Picture: Getty Images/ iStockphoto - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The I-Spy books (source: Wikipedia) comprised around forty slim volumes that sold in hundreds of thousands of copies each, totalling sales of 25 million worldwide to 2010. Each book covered a different subject, such as I-Spy Cars, I-Spy on the Pavement (now that’s got to be interesting!), I-Spy Churches, I-Spy on a Train Journey, and so on. As children spotted the objects listed, they recorded the event in the book, and gained points, varying according to how unusual the sight.

Once the book was complete, it could be sent to Charles Warrell, (known as Big Chief I-Spy - yes, I know, they’ve changed that now) for a feather and order of merit. The children participating in the game were known as The I-Spy Tribe, and by 1953 the I-Spy Tribe had half a million members.

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I wasn’t in the tribe. The two titles I bought were, I think, I-Spy Birds and I-Spy Wildflowers and although I saw plenty of both in the south Norfolk countryside, I was far too caught up in being a real-life imaginary spy to tick off what I saw. It was a bit too much like homework for although I appreciate it could also be exciting. You have to remember these were times when children were collectors ? stamps and coins etc. Maybe it was the idea of getting rewarded with a feather that deterred my efforts ? scant reward for all that searching and watching.

Charles Warrell, a former head master, created the idea of the books towards the end of his working life. He retired in 1956 and died in 1995 at the magnificent age of 106. The second Big Chief was Warrell’s second-in-command Arnold Cawthrow who carried on in the role until 1978 ? also working as an antiques dealer in Islington during this time.

The books were originally self-published by Charles Warrell but, after a brief period when they were published by the Daily Mail, they were taken over by the now defunct News Chronicle newspaper. The regular I-SPY column, which appeared in the News Chronicle, reverted to the Daily Mail when the News Chronicle ceased publication, and continued to appear until the late 1980s.

The books became very popular, with print runs well into six figures. Big Chief I-Spy had a succession of assistants, usually known as “Hawkeye”. In the 1980s, following a short-lived third Big Chief, David Bellamy became the person to whom completed books were sent, and the earlier “Red Indian” connections were quietly and correctly dropped.

Michelin Travel Publications acquired and published the series from 1991 until 2002 when they effectively ceased publication but then Michelin re-launched I-Spy books in 2009 with 12 new titles, adding a further 12 in 2010, including I-Spy Birds, Cars, Trees, On a Car Journey and On a Train Journey thus remaining faithful to the original concept though, of course, with updated design.

They are currently available (I found them at a well-known online bookseller) with I Spy at the seaside, wild flowers, in the garden, dogs, in the night sky, on the motorway (that wouldn’t have been around in 1948) etc.

It is heartily encouraging to see that there is still a market for “interactive” books. How refreshing that nothing has to be re-charged before it can be used. Isn’t it good to know that children still have the skills required to turn a page rather than simply right-swipe or double-click. A book is a constant companion. It won’t fail you by running out of battery.

Other newer I Spy titles include I-Spy on a road trip and I-Spy cool cars, not forgetting, the cheeky grown-up spin-offs that worked so well for the Famous Five (eg Five on Brexit Island, Five Go Gluten Free). There is I-Spy the UK: while it lasts, I-Spy at the School Gate: my mum’s better than your mum and I-Spy Signs and Instructions: you must obey.

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