Harriet the Spy at 50

I never read Harriet the Spy growing up.

I’m not sure exactly how that happened, although I have some theories. The books I remember reading for fun in the years leading up to adolescence tend to feature boys as protagonists: The Hardy Boys, of course, along with John D. Fitzgerald’s The Great Brain series, Keith Robertson’s Henry Reed quartet, and the Danny Dunn novels of Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams. Apart from Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and Beezus stories, I can’t remember any “girl-centric” pleasure reading from that period; the one Judy Blume book we were assigned in elementary school was Iggie’s House. A book about an 11-year-old girl filling her diary with uncensored observations of her classmates and neighbors wouldn’t have been on my radar.

My loss, as it turns out.

Harriet the Spy was the first novel by Louise Fitzhugh, originally published in 1964. Delacorte Press has just released a 50th anniversary edition that features short tribute essays by several authors, including Judy Blume, Lois Lowry, and Gregory Maguire. When it arrived in a batch of other new books, I decided to check out the opening pages on my subway ride home. That opening scene, where Harriet’s nanny, Ole Golly, takes her and her best friend Sport out to visit her mother in Far Rockaway, and then Mrs. Golly breaks down when it’s time for them all to go home? I was not expecting the novel to get that dark, that fast… and that, as though of you who actually read the novel when you were kids know, is only the beginning.


Reading Harriet the Spy for the first time as an adult, what struck me about the novel was Fitzhugh’s portrayal of a young child trying to work out a profound emotional pain that she can’t fully understand: “A FUNNY LITTLE HOLE IN ME THAT WASN’T THERE BEFORE, LIKE A SPLINTER IN YOUR FINGER, BUT THIS IS SOMEWHERE ABOVE MY STOMACH.” Harriet’s outbursts at her parents and the cook, her vindictive lashing out at her classmates, the rage in her notebook entries—she’s clearly acting out her frustration at Ole Golly’s departure, and the most effective aspect of Fitzhugh’s telling is that she doesn’t explain or editorialize it. Presenting Harriet’s behavior without commentary makes it more unsettling; in hindsight, it’s easy to see why the novel has disturbed so many adults over the last half-century, and why they’ve tried to keep it from young readers.

I’m hardly breaking new ground by pointing out Harriet is no role model for young readers, at least not in the sense that some stewards of children’s literature would want her to be. Instead of being a figure kids can try to live up to, she’s one with whom they can identify. Considering what my life was like when I was eight, nine, ten, as my parents were separating and divorcing, I sort of wish I had discovered Harriet the Spy then. I suspect that, even with its dark undercurrents, or maybe because of them, it would have been no small comfort.

I also suspect that having Harriet the Spy under my belt would have made a huge difference when it came time to read The Catcher in the Rye in ninth grade. I don’t want to get too far into this line of thought without having reread Salinger, but Holden Caulfield didn’t stick with me for very long… and, right now at least, Harriet feels like a more emotionally authentic character, who finds a more honest way of dealing with the hypocrisy of the world. And when Ole Golly advises Harriet, in her last letter, “You’re eleven years old which is old enough to get busy at growing up to be the person you want to be,” you have a real sense that she’ll be able to do it.

(Yes, I saw there were sequels, and I’ve been told they get even bleaker. But no spoilers, please; I’ll find my own way to those stories eventually!)

(NOTE: This post originally appeared on Beacon.)

20 March 2014 | read this |