The I-SPY books are spotters' guides written for British children, and particularly successful in the 1950s and 1960s in their original form and again when relaunched by Michelin in 2009 after a seven-year gap in publishing.
The I-SPY Tribe was based on the I-SPY Books, some forty small volumes that sold in hundreds of thousands. Each book covered a subject such as I-SPY Cars, I-SPY on the Pavement, I-SPY Churches, I-SPY on a Train Journey, etc. As children spotted objects such as coalhole covers, oak trees, semaphore signals, fire engines, whelks, and so on, they recorded the event in the relevant book, and gained points. Once the book was complete, it could be sent to Big Chief I-SPY for a feather and order of merit.
The company was supposedly run by a Red Indian chief called Big Chief I-Spy. The original Big Chief I-Spy was Charles Warrell, a former head master who created I-Spy towards the end of his working life. He retired in 1956, but lived on until 1995 when he died at the age of 106. After Warrell's retirement his assistant Arnold Cawthrow became the second Big Chief, and served in this role until 1978. For part of this time he also worked as an antiques dealer in Islington. He died in 1993, and is commemorated by a stone plaque placed on the outside of the Boatmen's Rooms, the house where he spent some of his last years in Deal, Kent. Members of the I-Spy Tribe were called Redskins, and the head office was variously known as the Wigwam by the Water or the Wigwam-by-the-Green. The former was located for some years next to the Mermaid Theatre at Blackfriars, while the latter was in London's Edgware Road.
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 and based in the paper's building in Bouverie Street. 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 have had various publishers over the years including the Dickens Press, a company set up to continue the book publishing interests of the 'News Chronicle', and Polystyle Publications, a publisher of children's comics.
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 early 1970s, this position was held by Ralph Mills. Earlier assistants included Max Heinz and John Tagholm. In the 1980s, following a short-lived third Big Chief, Robin Tucek, David Bellamy replaced Big Chief I-Spy as the person to whom completed books were sent, and the earlier Red Indian connections were quietly dropped.
Michelin Travel Publications acquired and published the series from 1991 until 2002 when they effectively ceased publication, there were ad-hoc sales after that date to clear stocks.
I-Spy books were relaunched by Michelin Travel Publications on Mon 7 Dec 2009 with 12 new titles and a further 12 in Spring 2010. The Bookseller announced the new launch in its October 9, 2009 issue with an interview with Michelin Commercial Director Ian Murray. Mr Murray confirmed that the initial 12 titles will include I Spy Birds, Cars, Trees, On a Car Journey and On a Train Journey. The new I-Spy titles are faithful to the original concept but are fully updated and include all new colour images.
The relaunch of the books and subsequent multiple expansions of the title list suggest that their popularity is being enjoyed by a new generation of children.
There are now 37 individual titles and three boxed sets, one of which is made up of 70 individual cards.
The initial 12 titles:
I-Spy Creepy Crawlies I-Spy Birds I-Spy Working Vehicles I-Spy Trees I-Spy Wild Flowers I-Spy On a Car Journey I-Spy Nature I-Spy Flags I-Spy On a Train Journey I-Spy Ancient Britain I-Spy Classic Cars I-Spy Cars
Titles launched May 2010
I-Spy In the Garden I-Spy On the Motorway I-Spy At the Airport I-Spy Modern Britain I-Spy London I-Spy Green Britain I-Spy History I-Spy Camping I-Spy Car Badges I-Spy In the Street I-Spy Sports and Games
Titles launched April 2011
I-Spy Edinburgh I-Spy Oxford I-Spy Lake District I-Spy Bath I-Spy In the Countryside I-Spy Every Vehicle on the Road I-Spy Scottish Nature
Titles launched in summer 2011
I-Spy On a Ferry I-Spy London's Transport I-Spy On a Road Trip I-Spy On a Car Journey in France I-Spy Cotswolds I-Spy Explore London (126 page edition)
In November 2011 three boxed sets were released
I-Spy Out and About Car set - 70 cards I-Spy Car collection - 4 books I-Spy Nature Collection - 4 books
- Ted Wragg (11 February 1999), Education, The Independent
- Felicity Wood (9 October 2009), Michelin spots series and gets to play I-Spy again, The Bookseller