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Harriet the Spy Paperback – May 8, 2001
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A New York Public Library's 100 Great Children's Books 100 Years selection
"This is the book that made me want to be a writer. [Harriet] was the first fictional female character I ever came across who privileged her own truth above the expectations put on her as a little girl." —Anna Holmes for Bookish.com
“I don’t know of a better novel about the costs and rewards of being a truth teller, nor of any book that made more readers of my generation want to become fiction writers. I love the story of Harriet so much I feel as if I lived it.” —Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom and The Corrections
"Harriet the Spy bursts with life."—School Library Journal
"The characterizations are marvelously shrewd."—The Bulletin
From the Inside Flap
Harriet M. Welsch is a spy. In her notebook, she writes down everything she knows about everyone, even her classmates and her best friends. Then Harriet loses track of her notebook, and it ends up in the wrong hands. Before she can stop them, her friends have read the always truthful, sometimes awful things she's written about each of them. Will Harriet find a way to put her life and her friendships back together?
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For me, as a kid, Harriet was so awesome. She was cool, she was a ne'or do well, she didn't give a flip about the adults, and if she did, she did it because of her own timing. She had a hard time with her friends, of course, but she blazed right past that and it was amazing! What more could you get out of a kids book? I carried a spy book with me for the longest time, and I would make mental observations about the world and people around me.
As an adult reading this book, I found myself crying a couple times, because there's this seething background full of classism, ageism, sexism, and and all the in-betweens if you're looking at it with an open eye. The problem with judging this book as a kid and judging it as an adult is that a kid instinctively understands that the things Harriet does (pinching, punching, all that) is in reaction to bullying, not an instigator of it. A child will realize, without even realizing it, that Harriet is reacting to the world rather than creating it (ironic considering her desire to be a writer). A child will feel that injustice and cheer for Harriet, when, by the end, she realizes that there are people other than her out there and she needs to think about them. She doesn't change her fundamentals, but she does realize that words can hurt people, and that her friends can accept her for who she is, rather than who she should be.
Adults who read this now, and say that this is a bad influence on kids, miss a key point. They're well-meant in wanting to discourage children from reading it because they think it'll discourage bullying. But it's not. Harriet the Spy cannot be read as an adult and judged by an adult because the kids reading it are thinking from a completely different angle. Harriet is eleven years old and it's impossible to give an adult's mindset and motives because she simply doesn't have them yet. And it's good. She's learning what it means to do something and the consequences of the action. Is she learning kindness or is she learning caution? It's too early to tell. But as any child can tell, Harriet is changing and it's a wonderful thing because what's worse than having things go terribly wrong in your young life and knowing nothing will ever change?
I really liked it when the book seemed to begin exploring class differences from a child's point of view--Harriet begins to realize that her family has a nanny and a cook, while her best friend Sport is essentially managing his own household for his father, a struggling writer. The people Harriet is spying on come from all different sorts of circumstances, from a wealthy woman who has decided to lie in bed and talk to people on the phone all day and a couple who have no interests except for buying things and showing them off to friends, to a young man who works in a store and feeds poor people from the back door and another who keeps dozens of cats in his home. I was expecting some sort of recognition of the inequities in life. At one point, Harriet wonders if she is rich, but the observation never really goes anywhere. The book raised the issue of class distinctions without really dealing with it in any meaningful way.
Another aspect of the story involves Harriet's relationship to her nurse, Ole Golly. Ole Golly is a highly literate woman, a little eccentric, but understanding well how to handle Harriet. Harriet is taken on a journey of recognition that her nurse has a life apart from her duties in Harriet's household. First she meets Ole Golly's mother, who seems to be either mentally challenged or suffering from dementia (or both), although Ole Golly seems to attribute her mother's behavior to a lack of interest in people, books, education, or any other way of life. It appears that this is why Ole Golly encourages Harriet's spy activities. It turns out that Ole Golly has a boyfriend as well, and the two of them get engaged. Through a combination of circumstances, Ole Golly leaves her employment at Harriet's house abruptly, marries, and moves to Montreal. Harriet is left without guidance, as her parents are wealthy socialites who are largely neglectful of her.
This lack of guidance precipitates the central crisis of the book, as Harriet's notebook falls into the hands of her classmates at school, and they read the way Harriet has been writing about them. This leads to my central criticism of the book. Harriet's descriptions in her notebooks are almost universally derogatory. Other people, to Harriet, are almost always ugly, fat, stupid, and/or boring. Harriet wonders whether a schoolmate's mother hated her when she was born, observing that she certainly would have hated her. Her description of "what to do about" another classmate involves turning a hose on him, pinching his ears until he screams, and tearing his pants off and laughing at him. She mocks children of divorce. She names one boy "the boy with the purple socks" because nobody can remember his name, even though he has the perfectly normal name of Peter. Even her best friends fall victim to her scathing attacks.
Granted, much of Harriet's apparent mean-spiritedness is a function of her youthful lack of understanding of other people's situations, and I must admit that Fitzhugh skewers childhood politics and intramural nastiness with a telling satirical accuracy. But once again, an opportunity for the development of empathy and sensitivity is lost upon Harriet. As Harriet's classmates ostracize her and torment her in class, Harriet responds not with contrition but with acting out and pulling pranks herself, which finally gets the attention of her previously oblivious parents, whose solution is to take her first to the doctor and then to a psychologist. Even after this, no adult in her life ever sits Harriet down and explains to her that indulging nasty feelings by writing them down in her notebook is both morally wrong and likely to end with exposure and exactly the kind of backlash Harriet is experiencing now. Nobody ever tells her that looking at people judgmentally, mocking them for physical defects or situations in life that they cannot help, is wrong in the first place. Instead, she is rewarded with a writing outlet: the sixth grade page in her student newspaper, in which she begins to indulge exactly the same sort of mean-spirited observations she had been making all along (ones which are extremely unlikely to have been printed in any actual school publication).
The apparently intended turning point happens when Harriet receives a letter from Ole Golly (evidently at her parents' instigation) that tells her that while she must continue to be honest in her private notes, if they ever become public, she must apologize and lie. Once again, even Ole Golly fails to make a distinction between being honest and being judgmental and unkind. So Harriet makes a generic apology, and (what is probably more important) the group organized against her inevitably falls apart with its own squabbling. The book ends with Harriet beginning to renew her friendship with Sport and reflecting that, yeah, sometimes you just have to lie.
The book has great writing and a wonderful premise but a deeply amoral and misanthropic viewpoint. Those who love the book will argue that, if we were honest, we would admit that all (or most, or many) children think like that, and really, how much empathy and emotional development are we expecting from an eleven-year-old? They will argue that people like me are looking for a sappy ending in which wonderful lessons are learned and all ends up right with the world. My own view is that the book is full of missed opportunities--opportunities to really explore class differences, parental neglect, childhood pecking orders and spitefulness, and creative ambition. Fitzhugh keeps raising issues that she refuses to deal with, and that's why the conclusion is so deeply unsatisfying.
And then Harriet loses her notebook.
And then Harriet loses all her friends.
You don’t often find a children's story with the emotional resonance of Harriet the Spy.
I still love it! What a great character, all the characters are wonderful. And it's a good morality tale as well. I love the 70's vibe it really brings me right back to my childhood.
I'm so glad I re-read Harriet the Spy!