Harriet the Spy has a secret notebook that she fills with utterly honest jottings about her parents, her classmates, and her neighbors. Every day on her spy route she "observes" and notes down anything of interest to her:
I BET THAT LADY WITH THE CROSS-EYE LOOKS IN THE MIRROR AND JUST FEELS TERRIBLE.
PINKY WHITEHEAD WILL NEVER CHANGE. DOES HIS MOTHER HATE HIM? IF I HAD HIM I'D HATE HIM.
IF MARION HAWTHORNE DOESN'T WATCH OUT SHE'S GOING TO GROW UP INTO A LADY HITLER.
But when Harriet's notebook is found by her schoolmates, their anger and retaliation and Harriet's unexpected responses explode in a hilarious way.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee. She attended Miss Hutchison's School and three different universities, without obtaining a degree. According to her obituary in the New York Times, Fitzhugh graduated from Barnard College in 1950. She lived most of her adult life in New York City and had houses in both Long Island and Bridgewater, Connecticut.
She was married briefly to Ed Thompson, whom she dated in high school. After high school, she primarily dated women.
Fitzhugh was the illustrator of the 1961 children's book Suzuki Beane, a parody of Eloise; while Eloise lived in the Plaza, Suzuki was the daughter of beatnik parents and slept on a mattress on the floor of a Bleecker Street pad in Greenwich Village. Fitzhugh worked closely with author Sandra Scoppettone to produce Suzuki Beane, which incorporated typewriter font and line drawings in an original way. Although a parody of both Eloise and beatnik conceit, the book sprang to life as a genuine work of literature. Today, it is a much sought-after book on used-book websites.
Fitzhugh's best-known book was Harriet the Spy, published in 1964 to some controversy since so many characters were far from admirable. It has since become a classic. As her New York Times' obituary, published November 19, 1974, states: "The book helped introduce a new realism to children's fiction and has been widely imitated". Harriet is the daughter of affluent New Yorkers who leave her in the care of her nanny, Ole Golly, in their Manhattan townhouse. Hardly the feminine girl heroine typical of the early 1960s, Harriet is a writer who notes everything about everybody in her world in a notebook which ultimately falls into the wrong hands. Ole Golly gives Harriet the unlikely but practical advice that: "Sometimes you have to lie. But to yourself you must always tell the truth". By and large, Harriet the Spy was well-received -- it was awarded a New York Times Outstanding Book Award in 1964 -- and has sold 4 million copies since publication. Two characters from the book, Beth Ellen and Sport, were featured in two of Fitzhugh's later books, The Long Secret and Sport. The Long Secret deals fairly honestly with female puberty; the main characters are pre-teen girls who discuss how their changing bodies feel.
Fitzhugh illustrated many of her books and had works exhibited in Banfer Gallery, New York, in 1963, among many other galleries.
She died in 1974 of a brain aneurysm. Her obituary was published in the New York Times.
Schadenfreude. That's what this book is about and it's all Harriet thinks about--the misfortune of others and how she can find joy in it. While that can have its place (like in The Hunger Games), it is just disturbing where this book is concerned.
This is one of those rare times where, twenty years later, I reread a book from childhood that I adored, and my opinion of it completely changes as an adult. I kept my original copy from childhood, but now I'm not sure I will keep it still because I can't imagine ever reading this again. It was painful. I did not enjoy it. It was not charming. I thought it was funny for maybe the first couple chapters, but it quickly becomes caustic.
Harriet wants to be a writer! Fair enough. But there are two very disturbing revelations associated with this:
1) Harriet somehow gets the idea that the best way to practice being a writer is not to, like, practice writing short stories and use her imagination. Instead, she takes "write what you know" to a whole new level, keeping a notebook where she spies on everyone in the neighborhood and then documents every cruel thought she has ever had about them, including her best friends, then somehow justifies this as a way to learn to write better and more descriptively.
2) Harriest does not want to be a writer to improve the world, become famous, or inspire people. Allow me, as I quote: "WHEN I GROW UP I'M GOING TO FIND OUT EVERYTHING ABOUT EVERYBODY AND PUT IT ALL IN A BOOK. THE BOOK IS GOING TO BE CALLED SECRETS BY HARRIET M. WELSCH. I WILL ALSO HAVE PHOTOGRAPHS IN IT AND MAYBE SOME MEDICAL CHARTS IF I CAN GET THEM." I just... WHAT??
Still, I kept giving the book the benefit of the doubt. For one thing, it is intriguing because we all think things about other people (although I quickly grew tired of that). Most importantly, though, there was still a chance that Harriet might learn some good lessons from all this!!
Harriet's parents are so pleased that Ole Golly can "handle" Harriet so well, but they seem blind to the fact that none of them (the parents or Ole Golly) seemed to have instilled any values, a sense of privacy and boundaries/parameters, or common decency in Harriet. Harriet is petultant, selfish, disrespectful, shallow, beyond nosy, self-involved, and just plain mean. She has no redeeming qualities. None. She has no social skills, cannot relate to her peers, is stunted psychologically, has a truly alarming lack of empathy for other people, and spends her days involving herself in everyone else's business--and truly and wholeheartedly thinks it's her business to know these things about others, whereas how DARE they think to look in her SOOPER SEKRIT notebook!!
Harriet is eleven, but she talks and spends her days like a middle-aged sociopath relishing the choice of his next victim. I kept waiting for her to learn a lesson, to gain some insight, to understand how her actions hurt other people, to understand what she was doing was not just wrong but also sick--nothing. She doesn't learn anything, not even when she goes to a psychologist, not even when she gets caught breaking and entering, not even when all her friends find her notebook and shut her out, not even when the adults closest to her realize what she's been doing, not even when the teachers see what this does to her classmates.
I am really not sure what Fitzhugh was trying to accomplish with this book. Harriet learned no lessons. Her friends magically forgive her after her superficial apology (which involved more spying and telling secrets!) in the school newspaper, whereas, were I her "friend," I would never be able to trust her again. She doesn't get into any actual trouble for what she does. If I had children, I'm not even sure I would allow them to read this.
The other day my girlfriend said something about her love of tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches, to which I naturally replied "Yeah? Do you like to roll around and pretend you're an onion, too?"
And she had no idea what I meant.
How do you not know Harriet the Spy? She has to rank competitively with the greatest literary characters of all time- so spunky, so misunderstood, so maligned by her peers toward the end. There was even some kind of high budget film that got made a few years ago. Frankly, it makes me sad to imagine a life without Harriet the Spy.
If you've ever spent any time wondering how fictional characters like Olive Kitteridge, Eleanor Oliphant or Don Tillman got to be who they are, you need look no further than Harriet the Spy.
It's all here, in this book.
Harriet is a lot like these adult characters, but she's a child, an 11-year-old girl.
And, we learn quickly, she never suffered abuse or neglect. Neither parent committed suicide. She wasn't sexually molested by a neighbor, either.
She's just freaking quirky.
Is she somewhere “on the spectrum?” Does she have a “personality disorder?” Is she a “sociopath?”
It's hard to say. Or, I can't say.
But, damn it, she is fascinating.
My 11-year-old and I couldn't even read this book without taking breaks. We literally had moments where we had to shut the book, put it down on the coffee table, and stare at one another. The fragments of our bewilderment went a little like this:
She broke into the neighbor's house???
She spied at them, through a peek hole??
She doesn't understand that they are talking about her?!
There was one point in the story that was so incredible (not unbelievable for Harriet's character, but incredible), my daughter, who is NOT allowed to use profanity, uttered, “What the hell?” I gave her a free pass in that moment, because, honestly, I was thinking the same thing.
I have never encountered a book like this before. Or, I certainly haven't encountered a book like this that was written for the middle grades.
I don't even know if the author, Louise Fitzhugh, was a creative mastermind or a quirky lady herself, whose mind just worked this way.
This is one of those books that no writer should ignore. Something happened here that was equal parts brilliant, hilarious and disturbing.
This bizarre book, written in 1964, is from a time capsule of no particular era.
Writing like this can punch you square in the face at any time.
I loved this book. Read it first in the fifth grade, then read it at least twice a year after that until it fell out of my book bag in the gym locker room in the seventh grade. Spent the rest of that term known as "Harriet" or "Fuckin' Girly Fag." I guess I preferred "Harriet."
Okay, who’s ready for another dose of nostalgia? I remember picking up this book before a summer vacation. The trailer had premiered earlier and I was dying to know what happened before I saw the movie (All the readers who truly feel me, throw your hands up at me). My plan was to read a chapter a day, but I was also reading Ralph S. Mouse at the same time (nostalgia kicking in yet?).
Anyway, somehow my older brother got ahold of it and finished it before me while I was reading the other book during this vacation. And he spoiled it. Yeah guys, he was mad because he got scammed because he bought a bootleg version of Dangerous Minds off the street (we were visiting family in New York at the time) so he took his frustration out that way as typical older brothers in the 90’s did for some reason. If you don’t understand this, I’m sure Clarissa would be more than happy to explain everything about sibling dynamics to you…
Moving forward, I didn’t finish the book at the time because I was mad that it was spoiled for me (no worries, I did pick it up again a while later). But I did see the movie and it was spectacular. I was obsessed with Harriet’s use of everyday things and how she turned them into spy gadgets. I wanted a belt like hers, and I think Wild Planet capitalized on it with their own line of spy toys.
I even remember prizes at our elementary school fundraiser being these collapsible binoculars and sunglasses with mirrors on the side of them so you could see behind you. These cheapo toys made all of us kids feel like real secret agents on the playground.
Then the movie came out on VHS and the clamshell packaging was orange! You guys, that was crazy at the time. Even the tape was orange instead of the pedestrian black, and that was so wild. And it came with invisible ink pens.
A big component of the story was that Harriet was told by her nanny Golly that if she wanted to be a writer that she needed to practice writing everyday, and to start using her powers of inspection to really see people. To look beneath the obviousness of their actions and see the underlying causes. And Harriet gets in trouble for her acerbic and cutting observations when her (private) journal is stolen and all the kids in her class find out what she really sees when she looks at them. She becomes a pariah for this, and even her closest friends give in to the pressure of alienating her because they felt betrayed by her (again: PRIVATE) thoughts. Feeling isolated and that her personal property was violated, she lashes out at everyone, using her newfound detective paradigm to see everyone’s weaknesses. And girl gets her revenge, no lie. But that’s part of the lesson here: you can really damage people when you know where they hurt, because the truth really can cut deep. Eventually, it’s up to Harriet to see that she went too far; that she allowed everyone turning on her because of her (PRIVATE!!!!) thoughts to have power over her and that she fed into the animosity to just make things worse; and put a stop to this. At last she rises above things, owns up to her part , and apologizes which brings her friends around once again, but this time with a healthy respect about not messing with a clever girl.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>
I genuinely don't like giving a book a bad review, but if it weren't that I have an obsessive need to finish a book once I start it, I would have put this one down the first time Harriet started screaming like a toddler. A large part of the reason I was so put-off by this book, is that I had set my expectations that I was reading a beloved and light-hearted childhood book about a girl who learns some life lessons after she is caught spying on some friends and neighbors.
These expectations were way off.
For one, I never read this book as a child. I had it on my childhood bookshelf, and I think I had read enough of the first few pages to have learned how to play "Town" when I was 7 or 8, but I never read this entire book like I thought I had. After the first few pages, everything was unfamiliar, so I really had no nostalgic feelings to help me appreciate the book as an adult.
Secondly, this book is not light-hearted; it's more like social commentary on the lonely lives of priveleged NYC children. I find this book depressing on so many levels. Harriet is so completely neglected by her parents and misunderstood by her friends and peers, and she shows her classmates very little understanding either.
Finally, Harriet doesn't appear to grow at all through this very tedious story (through very little fault of her own, as the adults she looks up to are such poor role models) and I NEED my characters to grow. Even after all she endures when her notebook is confiscated, she still continues to make superficial and mean-spirited notes largely about the people she spies upon being fat or ugly. Come on, Harriet, learn something! Even Ole Golly disappointed me, with her culminating letter to Harriet that came with the brilliant life lesson that 'sometimes it is just best to lie,' with nothing further to help Harriet grasp the concepts of empathy or tact.
My heart breaks for Harriet, who has clearly been permanately scarred by her parents' emotional abandonment, but at the same time, I just completely disliked her and her tantrums and cruel observations. Perhaps I'm being a bit hard on an eleven-year-old protagonist, but then I look at other admirable literary child characters, like Tree-ear in A Single Shard or Annemarie in Number the Stars and I just don't think a little growth is too much to expect at Harriet's age. I have a hard time believing that today's middle school children would find her very easy to relate to either, and I like my 'classics' to be timeless.
Sorry, I wish I could be, but I'm just not a fan!
*** Harriet as an onion was pretty priceless though. If only the entire book had been more like that scene...
I re-read Harriet the Spy last week and found myself noticing for the first time how deeply subversive and honest it is. Even by contemporary standards it's a bracing read -- hard to imagine what reading this book must have been like when it was first published in 1964.
Something that moved me this time around was how defiantly Harriet and Janie resist the half-hearted efforts of their parents to make them behave with more conventional femininity, and how quickly their parents give up that scheme (as represented by the specter of DANCE SCHOOL). As little as their parents understand Harriet and Janie, they also seem to have no real interest in changing or controlling them.
This isn’t a great children’s book. This is a great book whose protagonist happens to be very young.
This is a book that manages to be shocking in spite of the absence of sex, drugs, and violence. Harriet isn’t forced to kick arse in a fight to the death, or struggle to feed her family. On the contrary, the only shocking thing about her personal circumstances is how privileged she is. Her family employs a housemaid, a cook, and a “nurse” improbably named Ole Golly.
It can be hard for a modern reader of any age to understand what exactly that last job entails. Harriet isn’t sick, or sickly, so Ole Golly isn’t that kind of nurse. Ole Golly isn’t a babysitter exactly, either. She does stay with Harriet when her parents go to parties at night, which is frequently; but she doesn’t supervise Harriet very closely, or even walk her to school. She’s a bit like a governess, but she doesn’t teach lessons.
Actually, she does. She just isn’t paid to. And although Harriet leads a pampered existence, Ole Golly believes she can handle tough truths. “Tears won’t bring me back,” she says sternly when she has to leave Harriet for good. “Remember that. Tears never bring anything back. Life is a struggle and a good spy gets in there and fights. Remember that. No nonsense.”
And, later, in a letter:
If you’re missing me I want you to know I’m not missing you. Gone is gone. I never miss anything or anyone because it all becomes a lovely memory. I guard my memories and love them, but I don’t get in them and lie down. You can even make stories from yours, but remember, they don’t come back. Just think how awful it would be if they did. You don’t need me now. You’re eleven years old which is old enough to get busy at growing up to be the person you want to be.
Don’t sit around missing me when I’m gone. Life is tough, and eleven years old is plenty old enough to get out there and start fighting for what you need.
Tell that to a generation who grew up on the creepy stalker vision of parental care presented in Love You Forever.
This may not sound too startling to people who regularly devour dystopian and gritty urban YA fiction. Yes, Katniss has to fight actual life-or-death battles. But the whole point of her story is that she shouldn’t have to. Harriet is taught early on that life is a fight, and even members of the well-fed elite have to jump into the ring.
Granted, Harriet’s battles are brought on by her own worst qualities. She has a lot of them. She is not a winning, adorable child. She’s blunt and obnoxious and thinks mean things even about the people she cares about. And she doesn’t care about many.
She alienates everyone she knows with her writing. And then she wins them back – with her writing.
This book has aged well in every sense. It’s fun for an adult to read or reread because the writing is ridiculously, enviably good. It’s a book to give to children for the same reason. It’s also a terrific cautionary tale for very modern reasons.
As Meg Cabot, author of the Princess Diaries series, points out in her short appreciative essay:
Louise Fitzhugh could not have known how prescient Harriet the Spy was. Fifty years after its publication, some young girls and boys (and even old ones too) are still recording their innermost thoughts and feelings, only now they’re doing it far too publicly on the Internet, causing themselves untold amounts of trouble.
If only they listened to Ole Golly.
Cabot’s essay is included along with several others, all by prominent writers. Gregory Maguire’s even includes an excerpt from an early diary he kept after being inspired by Harriet’s example:
Tonight when we were going to swim, Annie said, “Aaahh! There’s a spider in my goggles.” Joe said, “Drown it! Throw it in the lake!” Annie said, “No, don’t drown it.” I said, “Annie, since when have you cared about the welfare of a measly spider?” She said, “It’s not that. I just don’t want any drowned spiders in any lake that I intend to swim in.”
Read this book if you haven’t already. Reread it if it’s been awhile. And get this anniversary edition if you don’t already have your own copy of Harriet. It’s a lot of fun to see how other authors were affected by the abrasive but compelling Harriet M. Welsch.
Yes indeed, I do very well realise that many children’s literature experts (professors, teachers, researchers) do seem to strongly consider that Louise Fitzhugh’s 1964 Harriet the Spy is to be seen and approached as a classic amongst realistic children’s novels. But honestly and truly, as an actual reader (and both in the autumn of 1977 when we read Harriet the Spy for grade five English and in the winter of 2021 when I decided to reread Harriet the Spy in order to post a Goodreads review), sorry, but even though with regard to writing style, Louise Fitzhugh does in fact present a pretty decently written story, thematically and content wise Harriet the Spy really so totally and utterly manages to rub me the wrong proverbial way that I can and will only consider but two stars maximum for Harriet the Spy, for Louise Fitzhugh’s presented narrative, and also must categorically point out that albeit Fitzhugh certainly writes engagingly, what she has penned, how she has shown and presented especially her main protagonist Harriet Welsch has really been a totally miserable and frustrating personal reading experience, with a major lack of pleasure, with really no enjoyment whatsoever (both then, both in 1977, and now, in 2021, and also just recently in 2022, when I decided very reluctantly to try once more, to give Harriet the Spy one more chance).
For while I do generally tend to appreciate and find much pleasure reading about children trying to become writers, sadly and frustratingly, the rather obvious fact that Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet Welsch attempts to for the most part only practice her writing talents by nastily stalking, spying on and penning often really horrid and brutal observations about her friends and acquaintances in Harriet the Spy (instead of for example practicing and fine tuning her writing skills by creating original stories and/or poems and making use of her imagination), indeed, this has both as a child and as an adult reader really made me not only absolutely and totally emotionally despise Harriet with every fibre of my being and to wholeheartedly consider her, to consider Harriet Welsch both an annoying and bullying false friend, pretty much ill mannered and even in my opinion verging on being a bona fide sociopath (or worse), that there also do not seem to be nearly enough serious consequences for Harriet’s spying and that she equally does not really seem to learn any major lessons throughout Harriet the Spy either except perhaps that she should not let herself get caught out and lose sight of her filled to the brim with secret and often really quite nasty observations spy notebook, this really does make me so emotionally livid that yes, my only, my strongest reaction to the contents and themes of Harriet the Spy and to Harriet Welsch as a character is absolutely one of major rage, of massive anger and of thus also not AT ALL enjoying the thematics and contents of Louise Fitzhugh’s featured text.
And to be brutally honest, my ranking of two stars for Harriet the Spy is in my humble opinion actually even quite generous, for if I were to ONLY consider my profoundly negative in every way emotional reaction and how much I really do totally hate hate hate Harriet Welsch and her stalking, spying ways on a personal level, I should likely be considering only one star for Harriet the Spy (but well, Louise Fitzhugh does have a stylistic flair which I certainly am able to appreciate, so two stars it is for Harriet the Spy, but certainly granted only very grudgingly). Oh and by the way, the negative and bigoted referrals to Native Americans in Harriet the Spy (as recently pointed out by Debbie Reese and that they do seem to also be totally gratuitous), this certainly makes me even more livid and not very much in the mood to either recommend Harriet the Spy or to in any manner truly consider this novel as being a classic.
Eleven year old Harriet wants to be a spy. She writes down all of her thoughts about everyone in a notebook she always keeps on her. She also goes around town spying on as many people as she can, learning things and always, always writing down what she thinks.
This backfires tremendously when her schoolmates find her lost notebook, and read every single honest and often nasty thing she wrote about them. And just as her favorite nurse, and the only one who really deals with her on any emotional level, leaves her. Can she deal with the payback?
It's a typical kid's book set-up, but it's distinguished by one of the most unlikable protagonists next to Sheila in Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. Harriet's observations aren't just ill-mannered or rude, they hurt. This is because they are deadly accurate, and virtually everyone she knows has some kind of deep-seated issue that she spied out. She finds the weaknesses of all of her classmates and even the adults around her with the trained eye of a writer. As a spy, she's a great one; but as a human being she's terrible.
To a point, this is more the thoughtless cruelty of a child than the considered cruelty of an adult. But then, when she's discovered, she isn't really repentant. She's mean and she's hurt, but she learns nothing. She gets bullied, and bullies back. The worst thing about it is that rather than learn empathy or the right lesson, the book ends with her having learned nothing and the horrible lesson that it's better to lie to people if you can't apologize to them and mean it.
I can't blame Harriet fully though. Virtually every adult in this book is unlikable to a degree. Sport's dad is a worthless layabout. Harriet's parents don't really seem to be a part of her life, with Ole Golly as a surrogate mother/friend to her. Ole Golly is a good nurse, but a bad person; she manages Harriet, but really doesn't confide in her. Or even care that much. Most of the adult portrayals save for the man with twenty-seven cats are negative in some manner. Harriet is a child who is outside the world as an observer. No one ever seems to truly bring her inside some place, and I think this is what created the thoughtless, hurting, and even mean child that she is.
It makes for an unsettling book for those of us who read it late in life. Like a children's version of those interminable adult literary novels where everyone hates each other and you get depressed after reading it. You dislike Harriet's thoughts, because any empathy in them towards others is dangerously absent. But you also dislike the payback she gets, because she's obviously in pain and it also makes her even nastier to have the sole things in the world that she draws pleasure from (earlier, Ole Golly, later, her notebook) taken away from her. And you dislike the lack of lesson at the end, because Harriet needs to change and become human. She needs to grow if just to save herself.
Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce you to a very important person to me: Harriet M. Welsch, aka Harriet the Spy. She has been there for me on more than one occasion when I've needed her and she has not let me down. I don't anticipate she ever will.
I read this book at least once every year or two, or at least generally when things in life are rather poopy. I consider this the macaroni and cheese of the literary world, my mashed potatoes, my pudding. I just had my thyroid surgically removed on Thursday and while I've been out of the house periodically and done some things since anesthesia has worn off, mostly the best thing for me right now is to stay on the couch and watch shitty TV and read. I turned to reading this now because it reminds me of happy childhood memories, and how much Harriet has meant to me, and how much I relate to her, and how that relationship has changed (or not) over the years. Sitting on the couch under big blankets, sipping ginger ale through a straw and eating animal crackers (or putting animal crackers in my mouth until they dissolve enough so I can swallow them with relatively little discomfort), thinking maybe I should be eating ice cream instead, but deciding it's best not to move at all, and otherwise feeling very sorry for myself because, well, I fucking can... and this little piece of my childhood is there like a friendly stuffed animal.
This book is simultaneously a lesson plan and a holy text for me. When I'm having a hard time, I turn to Harriet. She's the I Ching. (Or, if she's not, then Ole Golly is.) I've learned a lot from these characters, and I've applied these things to my own life over the years. I even learn from Harriet and how I can apply certain attitudes to my life now. I'm not sure if there's another book that has that kind of hold on me.
Like Harriet, I've always written in notebooks. The notebooks have changed over the years, in the frequency in which I write in them, in what I write in them, and sometimes they get artsy, and sometimes they're not. They're always evolving. I would like to think that Harriet's notebooks would evolve if we were able to see her grow into adulthood.
Like Harriet, sometimes writing in notebooks has gotten me in trouble. I've always been extremely territorial about my writing, even when I was working on my degree in Creative Writing. If I wanted to share something, I would, but otherwise I wouldn't, and yes, that would also go to the writing I did for class, and yes, my grades reflected that. I like to think Harriet would get it, if no one else could.
Like Harriet, I've had trouble with friends in the past. My troubles in the beginning were slightly different - making the wrong choices in friends, or having exceptionally dramatic friends, or lying, cheating, thieving kinds of friends. Or wanting to be friends with people who didn't give a crap about me, the ones who made my junior high years a living hell. Incidentally, I believe it was during the junior high years that I didn't have a copy of Harriet the Spy to read at any given moment. I think that shows something. I needed her wisdom and she wasn't there. (And I was too cool to think I needed her at that stage anyway.)
When I came around, I never turned back.
Harriet lived as an only child in the Upper East Side in Manhattan in the 1960s. I read Harriet the Spy for the first time as the youngest of three children in Davenport, Iowa in the 1980s. There were things about her story that I couldn't understand or relate to, like why anyone would need a cook and a nanny, and what the hell is an egg cream anyway? She went to a private school. I didn't even know anyone in a private school in Davenport, Iowa. But her story is timeless - she's just a kid who wants to figure herself out and sometimes she has to be an onion.
We've all had days like that.
There's nothing I can say that can adequately explain my love for Harriet, and I especially can't do it right now where I'm all crummy inside and missing a thyroid. This is a review in progress. It will never be the way I want it to be.
But right now, feeling the way I do, this was another perfect time to spend with Harriet and her tomato sandwiches, to remind me that some days really do suck a big one and that it's okay to be myself and that it's not okay for anyone to take my notebooks away.
It's also a reminder that sometimes it's okay to feel mean. We were raised to be a not mean family, and while I appreciate that effort our parents made, the reality is that people are mean and that it never hurts to be able to protect oneself. Sometimes it's okay to just wake up feeling mean and it's okay to hate the stupid birds singing outside the window. Sometimes it's okay to hate our friends and it's okay to hate our lives. Just like sometimes it's okay to have to be an onion when we would rather not have to be an onion, and it's okay to have to grow up and be able to handle things on our own, and it's okay to say goodbye to Ole Golly (though due to my lowered immune system and the after effects of anesthesia, I cried like a bitch during that part).
This book is full of reminders for me. But mostly it just reminds me of who I am.
Life-changing. I am not kidding. She was my heroine.
"Lovely, lovely. Now let's see, vegetables first, vegetables..." Sport started to sprint for the door. Miss Elson pulled him back by the ear. Pinky Whitehead arrived back. Miss Berry turned to him, enchanted. "You will make a wonderful stalk of celery." "What?" said Pinky stupidly. "And you"--she pointed at Harriet--"are an ONION." This was too much. "I refuse. I absolutely REFUSE to be an onion."
"Sometimes you have to lie. But to yourself you must always tell the truth." -- Ole Golly
I don’t even know how to rate this. Don’t ask me why I picked this up. A booktuber who decided to go back and read old childhood favorites to see if they held up inspired me to do the same. I was fairly outraged by her depiction of Harriet as the most vile child protagonist on earth. Not the cute smart little Harriet from my memories! So I decided to pick it up and give it a go. First surprise was that the book was 400 pages. Not the little thin book I was expecting.
Now, to be fair. I hardly remember anything about this book, other than the fact that when I was younger this book caused me to want to carry around my own notebook. More than a desire to be a spy, it was about wanting to be a writer, but even more than even that it was about my ever present (even in youth) love for notebooks. So I insisted on getting the same sort of black and white composition notebooks that she used in the movie, and did my best to emulate her.
But here’s where things get foggy in my memory. I read the book, I know I did, but I have basically no memory of it. I do remember the movie tho, and remember Rosie O’Donnell was Ole Golly (I think?) and I remember the cute little actress that played Harriet and as far as I can recall, Harriet from the movie was nothing like Harriet from the book I just read.
Because yes, Harriet the spy from the famous children’s book is absolutely positively irrefutably the most vicious, vile, cruelly insensitive protagonist ever to grace the world of children’s literature. She was downright wicked. But before I place the blame entirely on her, I have to point out the total non existence of any parental guidance or discipline, her parents are completely vapid and self absorbed and her only source of maternal or paternal affection or instruction comes from her nanny Ol Golly, who leaves her when she’s 11 years old and bothers only to send one letter after her abrupt departure saying quite frankly, “you have to lie,” if you want to keep your friends and ““Another thing. If you’re missing me I want you to know I’m not missing you. Gone is gone. I never miss anything or anyone because it all becomes a lovely memory. I guard my memories and love them, but I don’t get in them and lie down.” And while I understand the sentiment, not exactly prize winning advice coming from a girl’s only figure of authority, & her true mother figure being that her own mother was mostly absent. Not something like, “you have to work hard to see life through the eyes of others,” walk a mile kind of thing, or “kindness is always the answer because you never know what somebody is going through,” or “there is so much more to people than meets the eye,” or “you cannot ascribe a person their worth simply by judging their appearance but rather in watching how they treat their fellow man and people less fortunate than themselves.” any of those kinds of things would do! Something to teach her a little empathy! But no. Just tell her to tell bold faced lies and don’t address the main issue at hand, that she has an alarming lack of empathy and a fundamentally cruel nature. I honestly thought she was possibly sociopathic.
Hariett got it into her head somewhere along the way that she wants to be a spy. So she has a “route” in her neighborhood that she traverses daily, poking about, spying in windows, eavesdropping, trespassing, breaking and entering, the works. In short: spy stuffs. Only rather than solving some kind of mystery which I incorrectly assumed/misremembered was at the heart of the novel, she writes instead her every single insensitive, brutal, malicious thought. It is usually almost always something to do with how ugly or fat somebody is, how repulsive, how boring, the pimple on their nose, how she wants to hit or kick somebody, you get the gist. Not a single nice or pleasant thing to be found anywhere even about those closest to her. When her best friend Sport proudly shows Harriet his secret stash of "CPA stuff" (cuz he says he wants to be a CPA) and explains how he is responsible for his and his father's finances, forced to take his father's checks weekly and budget for the two of them, otherwise his father will simply spend it all immediately and they won't eat that week. She leaves his house and immediately begins her musings in her notebook. What makes somebody rich? What makes somebody poor? Is she rich or is she poor? This doesn't exactly sound like the 11 year old she's supposed to be but rather the childish musings of a 4 or 5 year old. I realize that this may be in fact a social commentary on the lives of sheltered and privileged rich kids, but I myself was sheltered and privileged and I can tell you that at 11 years old I was more than able to grasp such very basic concepts such as "rich" and "poor" and the fact that money was what made you either one of these. When Harriet's notebook is ultimately taken from her, and all her heartless, unsympathetic thoughts read aloud for all the students in her class to hear, including those referring to her best friends Sport and Janie, Harriet is once again wholly incapable of producing a single iota of remorse or empathy. She is instead indignant at the breach of privacy (never mind the fact the entire basis of said notebook is literally about invading everyone else's privacy, but we won't dwell on that for too long because if Harriet is unable to conclude on her own that remorse should be the prevailing sentiment in this situation then she most certainly will not be able to understand anything about the hypocrisy of her actions.) She seems a bit lost, confused even as to why she incited the wrath of her classmates and seems to believe that their anger will dissipate quickly and her life return to normal. Another example of Harriet showcasing borderline sociopathic tendencies. I think back on my 11 year old self and think on how I might've handled this situation had I been in her shoes. And one thing I know for sure is that at 11 years old I would have been fully capable of understanding 1. That what I had said was positively atrocious and 2. That I owed everyone, especially my friends an apology. At that age I would have been old enough to understand that Sport's home life was unfortunate, I would have had the capacity for not just understanding but for empathy and sadness over my friend's situation, and if I had done and said the things she did I would have had the decency and ability to feel wracked with guilt over the hurt I had caused somebody that I loved and cared for. And naturally, (or one would think) I would have felt regret and remorse, and been consumed with little else beyond making my apologies and doing my best to repair feelings and relationships. That's me tho, and any other normal little girl. Harriet on the other hand is completely clueless, the idea of apologizing doesn't even make an appearance in her thoughts. Instead all she does is procure another notebook, continue to do the things that have gotten her into the position she's in (a.k.a. write her cold hearted savage thoughts about everybody around) and in fact only gets meaner, and nastier. (trips one kid so that he falls and gets a bloody nose, pinches another girl, cuts a chunk out of another girl's hair, etc) It is truly truly mind blowing. I had to remind myself constantly that she’s 11, and even the brattiest 11 year old brat deserves a little bit of allowance made for youth, but Harriet was pretty much as despicable of a human being as they come. Cruel. Malicious. Ruthless. Mean spirited. Just nasty. 11 year old nasty, meaning that the nasty is about pimples and bad smells and the otherwise unintentional nasty of a child as opposed to the calculated cruelty of adults. But one is only on its way to becoming the other, and Harriet is already half way there. I have no doubt Harriet has a future that consists of problems maintaining healthy connections and relationships with a potential personality disorder diagnosis in her future.
The ending comes and goes without any growth from Harriet whatsoever. She realizes what she must do in order to proceed doing what she wants to do, & does it solely to benefit herself. She thinks only of herself and never lends so much as a single thought to her friends and the pain she has caused them, remorse and regret seem to feelings she is incapable of, and her very nature is cruel, sadistic and mean spirited. I really did not want to revel in the bullying of a child, no matter how much she deserved it, but the spiteful part of me could not help wanting to see Harriet punished. I think I hoped that she would have an a-ha, come to the light moment and finally feel the remorse she so strangely seemed incapable of feeling. I thought maybe in witnessing her classmates forgiveness, it might dawn on her that people have hidden depths and worthwhile traits even as they might also be fat or have pimples. But no. None of this happens. Harriet throws tantrums, screams, is vile and cruel, she is downright ruthless and feels zero remorse for ANYTHING, and she learns absolutely nothing other than she must occasionally lie and pretend to be sorry in order not to be inconvenienced. She carries on with her notebook, her spying, and her stunningly innate cruelty, and that is the end.
I really could not make sense of what the author was trying to do here. I can’t say that there wasn’t something that was strangely funny about this, even while I was appalled and disgusted by Harriett, she was still a little funny. Funny the way that bullies can be, & I wondered if maybe her sole intent was that she was aiming at humor for children and just sorely missed her mark? I don’t think so though. There’s commentary here on privileged kids and neglected kids and all that, but I think she misses the mark there too. I learned a long time ago that characters without growth make for unlikeable static characters, and that’s exactly what Harriet is. I find it hard to believe that in reading one of my old child favorites I found one of my most hated protagonists but that is the truth. Harriet is a mean, cruel, heartless little asshole, and I’m not sure if I’m sad that I read this and spoiled the memory, or glad so that I no longer go on in life endorsing this book. I very likely would have purchased this book for my child one day had I not re-read this! But knowing what I know now, I absolutely would NOT want my child reading this and thinking that this was an acceptable way to behave, or behavior to laugh at.
I know that this was written and especially popular during the 60’s (and 70’s) at a time when society’s views of women were just being challenged & the typical female protagonists was traditional, feminine, etc. Harriet was supposedly a misfit role model, a character that stood out for many that were searching for something/anything different. She provided readers with a character who was “other.” Who did not fit it, and who refused to conform. In her own way, she was very principled and determined. Steadfastly true to herself. She was (literally) unapologetically herself. In that sense, & that sense only I understood the appeal. Whether or not a child is consciously aware of what is appealing about Harriet, a natural gravitation towards a misfit rebel type is understandable. Somebody with the strength to resist the temptation to conform. This, I can understand. But beyond that I really struggle to look past her heartlessness and cruelty. She might offer a reader a rebel to align themselves with, but her cruelty and callousness are really her defining traits. It’s such a fundamental part of her essence that I can’t force myself to look past it and see herself simply as some fierce little non conformist. There’s a difference between being different than other people, and being needlessly hurtful and mean. Having compassion for others is something that we should all hope to have innately, and that should be what is truly at the core of misfit and rebel stories. Compassion and love and acceptance for everyone, including even the misfits and the rebels. A rebel’s mantra is to be true to oneself, but that doesn’t mean that you’re the only one that matters, everyone else be damned! I remember once at a wedding I went to, the stepmother of the bride was in a huff over some previous slight. She insisted that she couldn’t show up for pictures because she didn’t want to be “fake.” She needed to be true to herself she said. I gently explained that there is a difference between being fake, and being polite. That in certain situations tact, & compassion should take precedence over blunt truths. And on the day of her wedding, a person which has committed no great crime, it is simply the right thing to do to smile and make nice, even if it’s just for that one day. Sometimes your feelings and needs aren’t the #1 priority. Most adults come to understand this at some point. Only sociopaths and assholes don’t. Harriet never seems to reach this conclusion. She is just so disconnected from the feelings of others, blind & wholly removed from the pain she causes, which I don’t think should ever be something we seek to emulate. Regardless of whether or not the ostracized Harriet is relatable, it should be pointed out that her expulsion from classroom politics came about as a result of her own actions. The class’s unity against her happened only after her own vicious behavior to each and every one of them. These are the consequences of her own actions and this should not be forgotten simply because she is then forced to stand alone. All in all, I don’t think she should be anybody’s role model and I don’t think her traits are ones to strive for. Self assurance and loyalty to oneself should not come at the cost of kindness and compassion and that’s basically what Louise Fitzhugh seems to be pushing here. I don’t buy it.
One star for the fact that it was readable, I flew threw this and did not feel the bored under stimulated feeling that I feel so often when I’ve picked up old favorites (Sweet Valley Twins, Goosebumps, etc) but minus 4 stars for Harriet being the worst kind of little girl.
Harriet the Spy was one of my very favorites when I was young; I'm happy to cede the World's Biggest Harriet Fan crown to El, but I was pretty amped to run across this at a stoop sale.
When I first read it - possibly also when I second read it - I immediately started carrying my own notebook around and writing in it all the time. Everyone did, right? I got in super trouble for that, too, because my fourth grade teacher - I think it was fourth? - confiscated it, and then read it, and then I had to talk about why I was saying such mean things about all my classmates. And this is why teachers who don't read books are at a disadvantage.
It holds up wonderfully, and that's nice. It's still a book with great insight into how kids work, and not a little insight into adults while we're at it. And its central message - other than "Blow up the school," which is definitely suggested, and remember when you could just suggest that, and everyone would be like *shrug* yeah, that does sound like a decent idea, one has to admit. Anyway, the other central message is that writing is a great way to explore one's feelings and exercise one's brain, and that really stuck with me, to the point where nowadays I pretend to write book reviews just so I can ramble about my fourth grade teacher. I don't remember her name but she was not great. You know what, I'm pretty sure I came out better than she did. I wonder if she's dead. She might be.
Harriet's a tough nut: weird and terrifyingly bright and given to breaking and entering. (And perhaps gay.) I was of course not a weird kid, I was perfect, but if I had been weird, this book would have given me a lot of great ideas for how to handle my weirdness, and it would have done the same for my mom, and I would say this is a pretty good book to read no matter what level of weirdness you and yours are at.
This was a deep favorite of my friend El's, and we bonded hard over our mutual love for it. We bonded hard over a lot of things. I stumbled across this review today and saw that the first thing I did was link to El's review. I do that a lot - my reviews are littered with links to El's reviews. I want these to be entertaining, and often the most entertaining thing I can do is to link to El.
We won't get any more reviews from El. But she did get to no less than 1335 of them before she died, so that's not bad. Once again, this is what she sounded like.
I have taken up the habit of periodically of reading children's books or something aimed at a pre-teen audience. Sometimes it is something I read growing up, or that I might have read, but don't remember reading. I focus on the classics to see what I might have missed as a kid whose reputations have survived the years. I rarely find I dislike anything of this type that I read, and some of them I love. Harriet the Spy falls into the latter category. I had never heard of Harriet the Spy until reading Julie's, a GR friend, review.
Harriet is quite intelligent. Like many intelligent people, she struggles to interact socially with others not so gifted. She sees a lot in the world around her that she considers "dumb" and meets a lot of people in that world that she views as "dumb". While this perspective can come across as very negative and hurtful, this is not Harriet's intention, but she has to deal with the consequences. I wish I had read this at eleven years of age. The insights provided by the story would have been very valuable for me at that age, but even today are not wasted on me.
I always enjoy learning about any new author I come across. Louise Fitzhugh died at 46. I am sad that her years were so short, but I am happy she left us such a gift.
HATED THIS BOOK! Seriously, what is the big deal about it? I never read it as a kid, but it was on a list of "Books about Brave Girls" and I thought that we'd give it a go for a read aloud with my girls. WORST BOOK EVER! I HATED Harriet! She was so nosy, so rude, and I kept waiting and waiting for her to learn her lesson, and SHE NEVER DID! In fact, in the end she comes right out and says that she should just LIE! EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of what I am trying to teach my girls! We had a good discussion at the end of how we should NOT act like Harriet, and how disappointed we were in this book. Lame, lame, lame!
Louise Fitzhugh was one of those rare children's book authors who actually understood what it meant to be a child, what the world seen through those eyes actually looks like. Harriet M. Welsh is right up there with Scout Finch and Francie Nolan as one of the all time great child heroines in literature. She is whip smart, casually cruel, constantly shouting weird nonsense, frustrating, brilliant and always, always surprising. She's a self styled "spy" who basically stalks her neighbors, family and friends and writes down all her observations in an ever increasing collection of notebooks in preparation for her life as a writer who "knows EVERYTHING." She's unsparing in her observations even of her closest friends.
But when her classmates find her notebook and read the things she has to say about them Harriet finds herself the target of wrathful retribution. Suddenly she is one constantly being watched. Will she have to give up spying for good?
This is one of my favorite books to revisit. There's something equal parts charming and terrible about Harriet's world. Its one of privilege where she's raised by her beloved nanny Ol' Golly (possibly the weirdest and greatest nanny in children's lit ever written. Take that Mary Poppins.) in a townhouse in NYC that includes a cook and maids. She attends an elite private school and her interactions with her parents always seem to happen at a distance, they're always on their way to a party or too distracted to really hear Harriet when she talks to them. There's a sadness to her life that makes her spying understandable. Its like the only way she knows how to be close to people is by staying at a distance and watching.
Harriet's imperfections are also what makes her stand out. She's seriously fucking obnoxious a lot of the time, which is clearly intentional. She's loud, super rude, and soooo judgmental. Weirdly rather than make her impossible to like all this makes her even more lovable. This is what I was like as a child! Kids have no filters, no guile, and very little sense of responsibility. This book is ABOUT a child beginning to understand that actions have consequences, that poorly chosen words hurt people and as Ol' Golly puts it at one point "sometimes you have to lie."
I remember things about this book, it stays with me in ways other books haven't. Harriet's hilarious rehearsal for the school play where she plays an onion and has to work out how an onion "feels" resulting in a hilarious interpretative dance around her parents bedroom. Harriet hiding in a dumbwaiter while she spies on a woman who's decided never to leave her bed again. Harriet yelling for a tomato sandwich and barreling into the cook after school demanding cake and milk.
I remember the wonderful pictures too. Fitzhugh is also responsible for the pen and ink drawings of Harriet and her friends. The spindly and sternly beautiful Ol' Golly, Harriet lying in the bathtub covered in ink after an incident at school, Harriet as an onion rolling on the floor, Harriet with her spy tool belt ready to go on her "route." Every one of them is marvelous.
Fitzhugh captures childhood with this book and its companion The Long Secret and Sport with all its contradictions and imagination and innocence and rage. She captures it perfectly.
I did not read Harriet the Spy as a young adult, as many others have, but I can recognize that Louise Fitzhugh did an amazing job of capturing the drama and fixations of childhood. Harriet is destined to be a spy, or at least a writer, and obsessively takes notes on everyone around her: her opinions of them and what they're up to. She sneaks into others' houses and back alleys and overhears conversations, all to fill up her notebook. This all goes south when [I will warn of a spoiler, but the synopsis here on Goodreads says as much] Harriet momentarily abandons her notebook and her friends find it and read it. They quickly discover what we've known all along: Harriet has something mean and hurtful to say about each and every one of them. Once she's ostracized, Harriet must figure out how to return her life to normalcy.
Fitzhugh's writing is great, the observations are keen, and it's fun to get into the wry mind of the protagonist, all except for one problem... Harriet is a horrible little human being. She makes the worst assumptions about others and their motives, treats everyone in her life as a prop, cares only about her own self interest (down to the most trivial comforts), is incapable of sensing the burden she places on others, throws tantrums, manipulates, focuses intently on how to cut others down with her words and actions, and doubles down on this behavior in the face of consequences. She is surrounded by normal people (such as the delightful nanny Ole Golly) who give her plenty of good advice and treat her with grace and sympathy, but none of that seems to register for Harriet, who stubbornly crafts her resume for Future Sociopaths of America. She never apologizes. She never acknowledges, even internally, the hurt she has caused others. She only values others inasmuch as they provide something useful to her. She lacks the hardware for empathy. I'm tempted to read the sequel to see if this ability appears as she develops. I'm sure this story can provide comfort to kids who are at their lowest and hating the world (we all go through that), but I'm not sure what the ultimate takeaway lesson is other than: "Hey, at least you're a better person than this guttersnipe."
Still, it's a fun and quick read, with some excellent nuggets of observation and wisdom.
I cannot believe in all these years of reading this book, I completely overlooked the queer subtext. WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? The things I learn from our classics readalongs! Also, one of our blog friends mentioned it's possible Harriet may be on the autism spectrum. One of those cases where discussing a book makes you look at something you love in a whole new light.
Since naming my youngest Harriet, I've had a number of people ask me or just outright assume that I named her for the title character from Louise Fitzhugh's novel Harriet the Spy (1964). She isn't named for the book but she did prompt me to read the book.
Many of the books reviews I've read for Harriet the Spy credit it for being ground breaking its brutally honest portrayal of childhood. Maybe it's the first (or among the first) to depict children in then contemporary society. The book though was noteworthy enough to win the Sequoyah Book Award.
I wish I could say I liked the book, but frankly, I didn't. Harriet is an unlikable and unreliable protagonist. She is left in the care of everyone except her ever absent parents who only actively take part in her life when everyone else has given up. She is first in the care of a governess, Catherine, though always called by Harriet's nickname, Ole Golly. She is later left in the hands of the less than sympathetic cook. Her parents are only ever there to be off to parties or to be overheard arguing.
Harriet meanwhile is given free reign to spy on her friends and neighbors. She's filled up 14 note books since her 8th birthday (she's 11 in the book). When she's finally caught spying her compulsive need to write in her note books becomes rather scary to read. Before her parents even try to talk to her, she's sent to therapy.
Harriet's tragic year seems to be more a scathing look at the wealthy rather than childhood in general. Maybe that's what makes Harriet so unusual. Most YA books seem to children from blue collar families.
When I was in fourth grade, I would have named Harriet the Spy as my very favorite book, even though I only read the first half of it. I re-read that first half so many times though, it was practically an obsession. First of all, Harriet's commentary in her notebook in hilariously funny. But more than that, I wanted to be a writer just like Harriet, so I was going to do things her way. I even went so far as to look in one of my neighbor's windows for material, but I got caught on the first try.
As a kid, I could not get through the part when her notebook was found and she became the class outcast. I so over-identified with Harriet that it was too much for me. I finally finished the book in my 20's, and it was worth it just for the writing lesson, "It was hard to make up the part when he found the cat." That's the fiction writing process summed up right there. Copying from real life is easy; adding a storyline is the challenge.
I'd recommend this book to kids who have an interest in writing, but only with parental guidance. Kids should be warned against peeking into their neighbor's houses even if they ought to know better, and some kids might need to discuss the ostracism section with an adult. It's every kid's worst nightmare. Having said that, it's one of the best books I've ever read.
I used to really, really love this book. Louise Fitzhugh has a fantastic style, and Harriet's voice comes through clearly. Harriet, whose ambition is to be a writer and a spy (her commitment to each varies throughout the book) writes in her notebook constantly. Mostly she's keeping notes on the people around her, both her classmates in her sixth-grade class and the people she spies on. The latter are fascinating and so well portrayed, with all their quirks and oddities. But Harriet doesn't pull any punches, and when (as is inevitable) the truth about her writing comes out, she pays a heavy price and learns some valuable lessons about what a writer actually does.
Harriet is extremely perceptive, and her skewering of her classmates is accurate, which is probably why it pisses them off so badly. And this isn't a didactic novel, fortunately, because I think it would dilute Harriet's gift if the story were turned into some afterschool special about the meaning of friendship. But the one thing Harriet never realizes is that being perceptive, seeing to the heart of things, doesn't have to mean being cruel. It doesn't have to mean seeing only the bad. Harriet comes close to realizing this when she witnesses one of the people on her spy route, Little Joe, surrounded by heaps of food he seems to be devouring--and then he gives half of it away to some starving urchins. Harriet sees, but she doesn't understand.
The ending is particularly odd:
I still really admire how brilliantly characterized this book is, but I have too many reservations about the conclusions I think the reader's meant to draw to truly love it anymore.
I don't seem to be getting a coherent feeling about this book, so I may just start rambling and see what develops. For starters, did anyone besides me feel that Ole Golly was a terrible influence on the kid? Sure, we want kids to learn that telling the truth matters but there is a higher value: that of kindness. Telling the truth that a child has been abandoned by her Dad isn't kind. Or that a boy is so boring, he is known in her mind as The Boy with Purple Socks. The implication is that Harriet is extremely bright so her antisocial behavior isn't so bad. Besides, doesn't anyone feel alarmed that this child is breaking and entering with no penalty? The extremely well to do parents are what we would now call absentee parents and only get involved when things have reached a crisis. They take Harriet to a psychiatrist ONE time and everything is solved? The kid has never been taught to love anyone but her incredibly obnoxious nurse. The nurse is clearly where Harriet picked up the idea of observing people and "telling the truth". Unkind truths. Only perhaps one time did the twerp write something that was true and not mean. She doesn't get punished for her little game of running into the cook at full speed on a daily basis. The cook gets a $5.00 raise (I hope that may be $5 per hour but I suspect it was $5 per day) instead. A big deal was made out of Harriet's love for routine but nothing came of this. She has tomato sandwiches daily and the cook is sick of making tomato sandwiches. So???? Harriet's love of routine is the least of her problems. The more I think about this book, the more I feel dislike for the book and the mc. I just downgraded the book to two stars. I'm glad I reread this book but I'm glad it is off my to read shelf and hopefully the next book I grab won't be so unpleasant. A friend and I were trying to think of books with characters living in apartments and this was mentioned. Harriet is far too rich to live in an apartment. She lives in a brownstone in New York but it hasn't been made into apartments. The one positive thing I'd have gotten about Harriet is that she is insatiably curious about people. Now if only she learns to interact with people, not just observe them!
Is it wrong to do a boozy review of a children's book? Well, this review is not for children, and as it turns out, the book is a delightful read for adults as well as kids.
I hadn't read it in a few decades, but somebody just mentioned it to me and I picked it up again. Let me tell you: Reading Harriet the Spy as an adult is like watching Rocky and Bullwinkle as an adult. You realize that 90 percent of it got right past you when you were a kid.
This book is smart, funny, sarcastic, dark, weird, and so very brave. Also, it's set in a New York of the not-so-distant past that I am so fascinated with. As a kid, I missed just about all of that--or I forgot it. I'm so glad I read it again. I am now forcing it on every kid I know.
But enough about the kids. As an adult reading Harriet the Spy, what shall we have to drink?
I'm going to recommend something fun, lighthearted, easy, and yet surprisingly satisfying, with the most tenuous connection to spies.
I speak, my friends, of the Moscow Mule. (Moscow makes you think of spies, doesn't it? Sort of?)
It's the easiest drink in the world to make. Just fill a glass with ice, squeeze a good-sized wedge of lime into the glass, and either drop that lime in the glass or garnish with another, better-looking slice of lime if you wish.
Now add 1.5 ounces of vodka. Don't get cheap, rotgut vodka, but don't pay a fortune for a fancy bottle and an expensive ad campaign, either. I like Tito's from Austin quite a bit.
Now top it off with a good (non-alcoholic) ginger beer like Reed's. Not ginger ale. Give it a good, vigorous stir to get the vodka moving.
That's it! That's the whole drink. It's bubbly, it's refreshing, it goes down easy. Put a bendy straw in it. Drink it in a hammock while you read Harriet in paperback and laugh out loud.
Third attempt to read. Still don't like it. But then, I don't like Catcher in the Rye, either. Or The Nanny Diaries. I just find it terribly depressing to read about ugly-spirited, self-centered, stupid people like this. And for a bit I thought it was going to go all Lord of the Flies and be interesting on a classic level, but no, the ending is a cop-out.
Or maybe I just don't get it. So I read the sequel, The Long Secret to see if hindsight would illuminate. It didn't. ... edit, Dec 2020
Now I'm even more peeved, partly at myself for needing Debbie Reese to point out the issue. See:
"'The crimson zoomed up Ole Golly's face again, making her look exactly like a hawk-nosed Indian. Big Chief Golly, Harriet thought, what is happening to you?'
In the space of a few words, we see stereotypical depictions of Native people: the hawk nose, the red skin, and the use of "Big Chief" to describe someone with authority.
When I call attention to this kind of content in popular or classic books, someone invariably replies that there's a lot in the book that is important, and that those things are more important than the problematic Native content. Those who say that are pretty much saying that the impact of this derogatory content on a Native reader doesn't count as much as the others who will, in some way, be affirmed by the rest of the story. But I hear that a lot. Over and over, Native kids are expected to push through that kind of content, for the sake of the other kids. "
I started reading early and started reading beyond my age level very quickly, so I was pretty much beyond children's books way before I was done being a child. Sometimes it seems like I went directly from Dr. Seuss to Grimm's Fairy Tales and then on to adult books. But this was one children's book that truly changed my life.
The book is about a little girl who fancies herself a spy, and keeps a "secret notebook" full of observations about her family, classmates and neighbors. I imagine that most little girls who read this book started their own secret notebooks. I certainly did, and never stopped, though mine came to be called a "journal" and later, a "blog." Plain and simple, this is the book that started me writing, and I never stopped. Harriet the Spy was truly a Book That Changed My Life. It's a great gift for a young girl or boy, plus the illustrations are great.