By Nanea Hoffman
Harriet the Spy is a children’s novel written and illustrated by Louise Fitzhugh and published by Harper & Row in 1964. It remains one of the all-time popular children’s books and has received critical acclaim for its brilliant portrayal of a young girl growing up on New York’s tony Upper East Side.
Synopsis: 11-year-old Harriet Welsch wants to grow up to be a spy so that she can “know everything.” She is constantly observing the people around her and writing down her thoughts in her ever-present notebook, which she considers practice for her future career both as a spy and a writer. She lives in a brownstone with her well-to-do parents who are extremely busy with work and socializing. The most prominent figure in her life is her nurse, Ole Golly, a stern but loving caretaker.
Harriet is an outsider at the fancy day school she attends, as are her two closest friends, Janie and Sport. Janie is pathologically shy yet rebellious, and she aspires to be a great scientist who will one day blow up the world. Sport (Simon) takes care of his alcoholic writer father, cooking meals and handling the family finances. Harriet’s observations of her own and her friends’ lives are hilarious and poignantly honest. She also has a “spy route” which includes interesting strangers in the neighborhood.
She’s fascinated by people like the wealthy woman who never leaves her bed even though she seems perfectly healthy, the reclusive birdcage builder whose tiny apartment is filled with cats, and the loud Italian family who own a grocery store. Harriet has an insatiable desire to know what they do and why they do it, and it’s equally important to her to be able to write it all out in her notebook. It’s as though she is validating her own experiences.
Halfway through the book, Ole Golly gets engaged and moves away. It’s time, she says, as Harriet is old enough now not to need a nanny. At first, Harriet is nonplused, but Ole Golly’s absence leaves a hole in her life. Her preoccupied parents and the surly cook are no substitute.
One day at school, the other children get hold of Harriet’s private notebook. After reading Harriet’s uncensored thoughts and opinions, they are outraged and hurt. In retaliation, they ostracize Harriet. They even go so far as to form a “Spy Catcher’s Club” for the sole purpose of tormenting Harriet. Harriet is devastated but vows to extract revenge. She makes a list with items such as : “MARION HAWTHORNE: FROGS. PUT ONE IN HER DESK. RACHEL HENNESSY: HER FATHER. ASK HER WHERE HE WENT.” Her stubborn refusal to cave despite her loneliness is humorous and heartbreaking all at once.
Eventually, Harriet’s parents seek help from Ole Golly, who writes Harriet a letter which includes the practical advice:
“Now, in case you ever run into the following problem, I want to tell you about it. Naturally, you put down the truth in your notebooks. What would be the point if you didn’t? And naturally those notebooks should not be read by anyone else, but if they are, then, Harriet, you are going to have to do two things, and you don’t like either one of them:
1) You have to apologize.
2) You have to lie.”
Harriet has to learn the subtleties of social behavior.
Harriet’s parents, realizing that their daughter needs an outlet for her talents, persuade her teacher to appoint her editor of the class newspaper. She’s a great success–finally, a place to put her observational powers to use! And even better, she’s able to use the newspaper to print a retraction of the things she wrote in her notebook. This is the apology and the lie Ole Golly was talking about. It works. Life returns to normal for Harriet and she resumes her quest to become a spy.
Similar to: Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, Ellen Conford, and E.L. Konigsburg
Why it stands the test of time: Harriet the Spy is told from the perspective a child, but the themes of the book are complex and layered. As a child, I identified heavily with this weird little kid who lived in her own world and operated mostly by her own rules. I began carrying a green composition book (I still carry a notebook just about everywhere) and even rigged myself a spy belt, just like Harriet, with a flashlight, screwdriver, and coiled-up jump rope. On page 4, when she and Sport are playing Town, Harriet says, “Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.” That moment was magic to me.
As an adult, I notice things I missed during those many rereads (under a blanket, with a flashlight, just like Harriet) as a kid. Now, reading about Harriet’s obsession with routine and her desire to observe people almost as if they were lab specimens in her sincere attempt to understand them, I suspect that today Harriet might be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
As a kid, Ole Golly’s incessant quoting from literature struck me as funny. As a mother, I can see an adult trying to broaden the horizons of a little girl who is growing up in a bubble of privilege. When I was ten, I wanted Sport to be my boyfriend. Today, it pierces me when he describes, matter-of-factly, how he takes his dad’s checks as soon as they come in so that his father won’t spend it all.
Harriet is timeless because the issues she deals with are timeless. When I sat down to read this again as a refresher for this piece, I expected to skim it quickly. Instead, I found myself savoring it, laughing out loud, unexpectedly moved to tears, reading passages aloud to my husband as we lay in bed.
I asked my 10 year-old-daughter if I could read it to her. I was skeptical as to whether or not she’d enjoy it. There are no dragons or Greek gods or wizards. No scatological humor or characters named after underpants. Two chapters in and she was riveted. In those first chapters, mind you, Ole Golly takes Harriet and Sport to see her mentally impaired mother who lives in poverty and later quotes a lengthy passage from Dostoevsky:
“‘Listen to this,’ Ole Golly said and got that quote look on her face: ‘Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.’”
Harriet assumes the child reading it will not only understand but come to love it. I did and still do.
You can find gently-used copies of Harriet the Spy on Alibris, starting at $0.99.