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.
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.
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:
- 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.