I was browsing around my local bookstore the other day when what should I spy (sorry, couldn’t resist) but a display of I-Spy books, with the friendly fat face of the Michelin tyre man beaming up at me from the front covers. I was instantly whisked back to sitting in the back of the car, looking out the window as we travelled along, hoping to see a crane or an AA van or some other thing that I could then tick off in my I-Spy book.
The I-Spy series were very similar in style to the Usborne Spotter’s Guides that I’ve written about before. The I-Spy books were generally smaller in size (I hasten to use the word pocket sized since most things described as such tend to not quite fit into pockets as well as they might suggest they do) than the Usborne equivalents, and tended to be about subjects that you were more likely to see whilst travelling, such as cars, the highway code or going on a train.
The premise was the same though. The book was full of pictures of different objects and things that you had to spot. A little box next to the object allowed you to tick it off as “spied”, and depending on how rare the object was garnered you a different number of points.
Simple and for the most part a lot of fun, although you couldn’t help feel looking through the objects and thinking some of them were incredibly unlikely that you would ever see. For example, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that triangular highway code sign that has a car going off the end of a pier into some water. I’m sure they must exist, I’ve just never seen one.
A little history on the book range then. They were first conceived by ex-headmaster Charles Warrell in 1948, and they met with much success. He called himself Big Chief I-Spy, loosely named after Native Americans (or Red Indians as they were called back then), and kids could post off completed books to him to earn a certificate.
Warrell retired in 1956 (although he lived on to the ripe old age of 106, passing away in 1995) and his assistant Arnold Cawthrow took over, and then by the time the eighties came round they were under the control of the “weally wonderful” David Bellamy. The Native American link was dropped during this decade (kids by then were beginning to lose interest in the Wild West), and then in 1991 the range was bought up by tyre manufacturer Michelin.
Michelin continued publishing I-Spy books with their aforementioned mascot adorning the cover until around 2002, when they went out of print. Now, they’ve brought them back again for a new generation of kids to play with on long journeys. Twelve are currently available including Creepy Crawlies, On a Road Journey and the mind boggling Classic Cars, which I can only see people ever completing by paying a visit to somewhere like Beaulieu Motor Museum.