"When I look at him, I could eat a thousand tomato sandwiches," or Harriet the Spy

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Hey guys. It’s Sadako. You may remember me from such blogs as Dibbly Fresh and Get a Pencil and Your Casebook. I’m filling in for the lovely and talented Nikki. Here we go!

Harriet the Spy is the one of the best children’s books of all times, in my not so humble opinion. Harriet was everything I wanted to be as a child–and still want for that matter: snarky, hilarious, fearless, independent, and above all honest, to a fault at times.

Eleven years old and a denizen of New York’s Upper East Side in the 60s, Harriet is a spy and a writer. She carries a notebook and writes down everything she sees. What are in the contents of Harriet’s notebooks? Let’s just say she’s probably what Alice Roosevelt had in mind when she said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me.”

Harriet spies on everyone and anything, eats nothing but tomato sandwiches for lunch, listens at doors, plays a game called Town which makes the Sims look dull by comparison, and and hangs out with her two best friends, Sport and Janie. Her world comes crashing down when her beloved nanny, Ole Golly, decides to leave to get married, and then once again later when the contents of her notebook which contain a great many inconvenient truths are revealed to the class, causing her mass ostracism.

Things pick up, though. A visit to a psychiatrist results in Harriet’s parents speaking with the school. Eventually, the school administration decides that letting the kids choose the class president and newspaper editor is unfair which gives both Harriet and another classmate of hers, Beth Ellen, the chance to become newspaper editor. Harriet uses her platform as editor to publish an apology for the notebook, and at the end, she and her two former BFFs (Sport and Janie) are pals again.

  • I love how delightfully early sixties New York City this book is. Harriet’s parents live on the Upper East side. They employ a cook, a maid, and nanny. Harriet’s father works in television and comes home pissed off, ranting about the “finks” at his workplace and mixing martinis. Harriet is basically what would happen if Sally Draper grew up and decided to put her nasty tendencies to a more literary purpose. (And I think the one thing that would make Betty Draper feel more faint than the prospect of her daughter being fat is the image of her wearing Harriet’s “spy get up”: lens-less heavy framed glasses, worn out jeans with a toolbelt, and hole-y sneakers.)
  • I also like how independent minded the kids are. I know that everyone says kids grow up too fast nowadays but I think in some ways Harriet and her friends were more mature. Sure, Blair Waldorf was probably Harriet’s age when she got her own personal shopper at Barney’s (not to mention, her first bout with bulimia) but Harriet has an actual spy route and writes pretty much incessantly. Her best friend, Sport, balances the family finances (he lives with his father, a typical starving-writer, and unless he takes and manages their checks, the money just disappears), and wants to be either a ballplayer or a certified public accountant. Her other best friend, Janie, wants to be the next Madame Curie and to register her displeasure with her mother enrolling her in dance school creates noisy explosions with a home laboratory. And of course, Harriet is both a writer and a spy.
  • The snark. Oh, the snark. Yeah, Harriet was snarking long before most of us were even born. I probably have to credit her with at least a quarter of my personality. At one point, Ole Golly tells Harriet not to be snarky. But how can you not love a girl who says stuff like:

Laura Peters is thinner and uglier. I think she could use some braces on her teeth.

Or

I think I would like to write a story about [Ole Golly’s mother] getting run over by a truck except she’s so fat I wonder what would happen to the truck. I had better check on that.

Or

If Marion Hawthorne doesn’t watch out she’s going to grow up into a lady Hitler.

  • Ole Golly is brilliantly subversive. When Harriet’s parents talk about sending her to dance school to learn etiquette and how not to be a wallflower, Harriet refuses because she’s just not a dance-y kind of gal. Ole Golly talks her into it–not by telling her to respect her parents because they know what’s best, or by telling her that a few ladylike graces will be good for her when she’s a teen. No, Ole Golly tells Harriet she should do it because it’ll help her as a spy. After all, female spies need to be well trained at dancing to charm secrets out of generals and so forth, and Ole Golly reminds Harriet of the Mata Hari film they once saw. Mata Hari, FYI:

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  • How many nannies would say, “Go to dance school so you can become a spy/exotic dancer/courtesan/executed traitor”? As much as I love Fraulein Maria, the most subversive thing she did was cutting up curtains for play clothes.
  • Harriet the Spy was banned for several reasons. One, it encouraged kids to use bad words and talk back to adults. And two, it made adults (apart from Ole Golly) look like hollow authority figures. Like, take this notebook entry on Agatha Plumber:

How does she pay for anything just lying there? I guess she just lives on her husband’s money. Does my mother mooch off my father? I’ll never do that. Look at poor Sport. He has too much to do already without me lying up in the bed all day eating.

It’s especially funny as later on, Harriet’s mother tells her that she needs to focus on her schoolwork because it’s her job just as her father’s job is his work in television. Harriet asks what her mother does and she says “‘A lot of unseen, unappreciated things.'”

  • Another insipid adult that Harriet dismisses on sight? Harriet’s dance teacher, who when choreographing their dance routine for the pageant, says things like, “‘…I want you to feel…that one morning you woke up as one of these vegetables, one of these dear vegetables, nestling in the earth…'” It makes “You do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! You do Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham!…but you keep it all inside” sound like positively deep dance instruction by comparison.
  • I bless this book with teaching me the word “Finks.” Harriet’s father comes home from work, except of shutting out his family and seeking solace a sexy Bohemian down in the West Village, he shrieks about how his bosses are all “finks.” Later, Harriet (in an example of little pitchers having big ears) parrots him, screaming, “I’ll be FINKED if I go to dance class” and calling all her classmates finks when they gang up on her.
  • The book is incredibly realistic in many ways. When Harriet publishes a note in the newspaper saying that she takes back everything she said in her notebook (at Ole Golly’s behest–she receives a letter from her one day saying what she should do if her notebook is ever found), there’s no big tearful apology scene. No hugs all around. Harriet sees Janie and Sport walking across the street. They stop and wait while she finishes writing in her notebook. Then she stands up and the three of them walk on together. No fuss, no drama. No, “I love you, man, you know that” or “Aww, I can’t stay mad at you.”
  • I think I can credit Sport, Janie, and Harriet with my cynicism. And here I thought I got it from another bespectacled writer–by which I mean Daria Morgendorffer. Sport and Harriet’s notes on the Christmas pageant (“I have no Christmas spirit” and “We’ll have to fake it”) are probably responsible for me calling Christmas a transactional nightmare. (And being labeled by my ex as an unfeeling Vulcan-esque harpie.)
  • Louise Fitzhugh gets into the mind of a child without being too cutesy. Harriet often says things like how she’ll be a spy when she gets older and she’ll put her name “HARRIET M. WELSCH” on the door of her office…but she hopes she won’t get too many night jobs as she’s not allowed out past dark. I love how one minute she’s independent, take no prisoners Harriet, but at the same time we’re all too aware she’s still a kid.
  • This novel was made into a film back in 1996, starring Michelle Tractenburg and Roise O’Donnell. It bothers me because I didn’t want a nice, jolly Ole Golly. I also hated all the pandering (Janie’s black! Rachel’s Asian! The stereotypical Dei Santis are a Chinese American family who own the Hong Fat emporium).

For those of you who loved Harriet the Spy, check out the sequel, The Long Secret. It’s not very well known, and I pretty much discovered it by accident, but it’s also one of my all time favorite books. The minor character Beth Ellen is a main character in this one, and Agatha Plummer comes back! Stay away from Harriet Spies Again, an unauthorized sequel written years later. Next to it, Scarlet and Mrs. De Winter are looking like Faulkner-esque. The Estate of Louise Fitzugh really dropped the ball on this one.

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About nikkihb

Wife. Mother. Reader. Blogger.
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19 Responses to "When I look at him, I could eat a thousand tomato sandwiches," or Harriet the Spy

  1. Michelle says:

    Hah, I used to LOVE Harriet the Spy. Still do, though I haven't read it in ages. I remember The Long Secret too, that one rocked. There was another sequel as well, from Sport's point of view, that was my favorite. Can't remember the title, though…Great post, Sadako 😀

  2. ali says:

    Yay, Harriet the Spy! You mentioned the movie. Why??? I'm trying to forget it exists. The book is so much better.

  3. Sadako says:

    Michelle, the sequel was called Sport. Appropriately enough, eh?ali, I agree. Hey, I only mentioned it to put it down. 😀

  4. Great recap of a wonderful book! Man, I just reread The Long Secret a few months ago, and am due for a rereading of Harriet any time now!

  5. nikki says:

    Thanks for guesting Sadako! I need to re-read this one. I think I last read it when I was maybe ten and I was too literal-minded. I was like "What? Harriet's mean!" Of course fast forward five years and I was crushing hardcore on Daria Morgendorfer. So that's probably when I should have been reading Harriet the Spy.Also, this book taught me what a dumbwaiter was. And since then, I've been a little obsessed with finding a house with a dumbwaiter. Anytime I visit someone who lives in a house built in the 19th century, I ask if they have a dumbwaiter.

  6. CarrieLives says:

    Um…I am ashamed to say I didn't read this as a kid, and I know for sure because I would have remembered Beth Ellen for sure- that's my name! Time to find myself a copy of this, stat.

  7. I read both this and The Long Secret…and I mostly liked The Long Secret because of the scene involving a clam bake. It always made me really hungry.

  8. Sadako says:

    Oh, the clam bake, that rocked. Nikki, you should totally do a post about food and books!

  9. Anonymous says:

    I just heard they are making another movie version of Harriet the Spy..Disney this time, with the chubby girl from Wizards of Waverly Place (Jennifer Stone) as Harriet. I think she's about 17 years old. That's as bad as Selena Gomez as Beezus in Beezus and Ramona. I think Disney is relying too heavily on star power and should try to find actors who fit the roles in the books if they are going to do these movies at all.

  10. belledame222 says:

    Yeah, Louise Fitzhugh for the win. Sport kind of jumped the shark iirc (evil mother tries to get his newfound 30 million dollar inheritance out of him), but it's still full of the same awesome as in the other two books. There was also some book she (I think) co-wrote with someone where the daughter wanted to be a lawyer and the son wanted to be a tap dancer, and the father wasn't at all pleased about either. Haven't seen it anywhere for years and years.

    • Illa says:

      That was called Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change (and I think she wrote that one alone and it was other books she collaborated on).

    • Cass says:

      Nobody’s Family Is Going To Change was turned into the Broadway show The Tap Dance Kid, starring Alfonso Ribero. I saw it with my 8th grade drama class and it was one of my favorites. I’m kinda surprised it didn’t last longer – I think it closed within a year or two.

  11. multicolors says:

    This post is about a hundred years old an I’ve read it more than once since it was published, but I never bothered to leave a comment about the part of this post I disagree with whole-heartedly. What you call pandering in the 1996 movie was a revelation to me at 12. I’m black and lived on YA fiction of the 60s–90s, and let me tell you, people of color were few and far between. Most often they showed up in 80s books as tokens and had a big fuss made over their race (the “oreo” incident from Slam Book and the mentioning in every single BSC book that some people didn’t want Jessi’s family in town because they were black come to mind.) So it was AMAZING when one of my favorite books of all time came to the big screen and there was a character who looked like me in it. You just have no idea how validating that can be to a child. And the 90s were a pretty multi-ethnic time when it came to children’s media, but I still felt personally excluded and underrepresented in a lot of the things I loved most (i.e. older books), so I was ecstatic about Janie and Rachel, too. I think diversity is always a good thing, and it’s not like this was a historical drama where it would’ve been illogical to make such a change. Not pandering at all in my book!

    • nikki says:

      Hi! Thanks for commenting. This post wasn’t written by me, but by a guest blogger. In any case, I do agree with you. I grew up in a super white town and now live in a town that’s very diverse. I much prefer where I live now, and I like to see it reflected in pop culture. It’s not necessarily pandering, but making the story more accessible to kids today, who are a lot more likely to have multi-ethnic friends than they were when Harriet was first published.

      • multicolors says:

        Thanks for the reply! I love Sadako’s blog too, but didn’t want to put this comment there or email her with a weird rant about such an old post. Sorry if you thought this was directed you. Glad you agree, though. 🙂

  12. Lauren says:

    This is an old post but I wanted to add my voice to the chorus of Harriet love. I also appreciate how subversive Harriet is as a sort of proto-feminist and possibly queer kid. Really, this book is profoundly radical in terms of its gender politics. Which makes it that much more fantastic. I also love how seriously Fitzhugh takes Harriet’s depression when she is ostracized. It’s no laughing matter, you can tell she is suffering. Good, good, good.

  13. Anna says:

    I’ve never read this book before, but I’m sure it will be wonderful! 🙂

  14. Snake The Chili Dog says:

    This may be an old post,but…
    I tried reading this in third grade but didn’t get it and quit. I read it not too long ago(more like flipped through) and wondered how I didn’t get it. Sorta funny…

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