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.