A-Z: Harriet the Spy

H

In 1964, the world was introduced to Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh’s precocious 11 year-old with a penchant for observing and writing. It’s difficult to believe that Harriet the Spy is a book that just turned 50–it seems as prescient now as it must’ve 50 years ago when it first appeared.

Harriet wants to be a spy–or a writer—or both. She spends a lot of her time walking around, sitting down, writing down. She watches others, and she writes about them in her notebook. Her nanny has encouraged her to do this, suggesting that observations and writing are the first places to start and that honesty is important. Harriet says, “Ole Golly told me if I was going to be a writer I better write down everything.”  And she does. She writes down everything she thinks and says, even the meanest of mean things–how her friend is like a little old woman because of how much he worries, how if she were the mother of one of her classmates she’d hate him, etc.

And of course, eventually, Harriet is found out. Her classmates find her notebook and read her observations, and they are–of course–furious at the portrayals, hurt by Harriet’s version of the truth. They form a club to prevent her spying, fixated on making her life miserable. They bully Harriet, and she is utterly confused and enraged. She’s only told the truth, and they’ve invaded her privacy. But what of their privacy? Harriet doesn’t recognize the inherent double standard that is her peeking into windows and spying on people to write down their movements but being angry when her classmates read what she has written in a notebook. And Harriet doesn’t just talk about observations…She disses classmates based on everything from appearance to actions.

 

Maybe she is truth-telling. She certainly believes herself to be. Even at book’s end, once she has retracted her mean statements, what Harriet has learned is that “Ole Golly is right. Sometimes you have to lie.” In other words, what Harriet learns is not the difference between fact and opinion, between reporting what happened and interpreting it, but that writing has consequences. She also learns something about privacy and spying. As a child, spying is one of the main ways she has of getting information–especially from adults who constantly try to block her from information she wishes to have, a common part of childhood and the way we configure the information we provide to children.

Perhaps this familiarity with seeking information is one of the reasons that Harriet, despite being unlikeable in many ways–she is brash, mean, an invader of privacy, and incredibly stubborn–is one of the reasons that we love Harriet. And despite her negative qualities, Harriet is bright, curious, and true to herself, even when she’s not entirely truthful. She’s also an outsider–and most of us know what it means to be outside looking in.

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16 Comments

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    1. Hello, thanks for stopping by!

      I’ve heard pleasant reviews of the film, but I haven’t seen it, so it’s difficult for me to say. I have a hard time believe it’s as good though, because as you say, the book usually is better. lol I do actually want to see the movie now, though, because it’s been mentioned so much here.

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  1. Oh I ADORED Harriet when I was young! The movie, too. I think when I was little she always taught me that not every girl had to be perfect and prim and polite, as well as, as you say, the big difference between fact and opinion. Great H choice!

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    1. I didn’t see the movie, but it’s been mentioned so many times in these comments that now I want to. lol

      What I find interesting is Harriet’s absolute certainty that she’s telling the truth—and she is, in some ways, but she doesn’t recognize that it’s her truth, and that it conflicts with others’ truths because so many of the things she says are subjective.

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  2. Well. This certainly hits home 😉 I think I want to read this more than any of the others you’ve written about. This one seems like the sort of book I might label ‘Important.’

    Here’s my pick before I head off to bed. Write On Sisters. The one I’m dropping here is about the need for historical fiction writers to stay out of the wagon-rut of the well-trodden 18th-20th Centuries, and they do a good job explaining why that era is so popular.

    Of course, I had to leave a comment and talk about how interesting, and significant, and long, in human terms, the 30 Years’ War was (1618-48).

    http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/historical-fiction-3-tips-for-leaving-the-slush-pile-behind/

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    1. ha. Indeed. I couldn’t get everything I wanted onto the page—screen—because my mind was racing in circles around itself. And I do think you should read it. Harriet is the most loveable, unlovely characters that I know of.

      And yes, good stuff there. We’re friendin’ on the Twitters.

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      1. Fabulous.

        I’m pulling art for the Feminist Friday discussion from your Pinterest board right this sec.

        Go and read their about/contributors page, if you haven’t already.

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        1. Ahead of you. 🙂

          And sounds good. I’ll be in and out while I write about Jo March and see if I can get a fix for my flat tire.

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        2. Oh no. Did you have to change a tire today?

          (just bought two high-tread used tires for the truck. Ran over some nails somewhere and had two flats a week apart last week).

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        3. I had a flat on 4th street and had do drive on the rim into the parking garage to get out of traffic find a flat enough place to change it the other week.

          Feminist Friday discussion scheduled to kick off at 9:15 in the morning.

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  3. This is one of my top five favorite children’s books of all time–I still re-read it every couple of years, and I even mentioned Harriet in my own “F” post for the A-Z Challenge when I posted about Favorite Female Fictional Characters. I catch something new every time I re-read this book–I think kids probably miss a lot of the humor and subtext in it.

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    1. Oh, I’m off to find that post right away.

      I think kids miss a lot of subtext, and that’s the joy (and sometimes horror) of re-reading a book as an adult. Because of course most of these books were penned by adults, and adults buy them for kids, so they have to have a dual appeal. But I think kids also understand some things we don’t necessarily give them credit for—the lesson of perception versus truth, for instance, seems too subtle but is something kids pick up on in this.

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