Top 100 Children's Novels #17: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
#17 Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964)
Obviously. – Denise Rinaldo
More brilliant and sophisticated than most any adult novel, and yet still captivating for my 7 year old. – Lee Behlman
I don’t know which I like best, the people on Harriet’s spy route, the fact that she makes up a middle initial, or the realistically painful way her classmates treat her when they find out she’s been spying on them. And let’s not forget Ole Golly, who makes Mary Poppins look like a complete fraud. Harriet is one of my favorite book characters of all time. – Kate Coombs
There are certainly dated elements, and elements that are so NYC-specific that I think my fifth grader brain must have rolled right over them when I first read it. Even so, there isn’t a girl who could read this an not immediately want to grab a notebook and start up her own neighborhood spy route. There’s a lesson about gossip and secrets and friendship and just plain old growing up at it’s heart, but’s it’s Harriet’s self imposed “job” that’s so thrilling. Harriet M. Welsch was a take charge gal, and I wanted to be just like her. I think, or at least I hope, kids still feel that way reading it today. – Nicole Johnston
“Harriet, you are going to have to do two things, and you don’t like either one of them: 1) You have to apologize. 2) You have to lie . . . But to yourself you must always tell the truth.”
Any summaries I find of this book tend to sound a little trite, so I guess I go with the one on the book itself. “Harriet M. Welsch is a spy. She’s staked out a spy route, and she writes down everything about everyone she sees – including her classmates and her best friends – in her notebook. ‘I bet the lady with the cross-eye looks in the mirror and feels just terrible.’ ‘Pinky Whitehead will never change. Does his mother hate him? If I had him I’d hate him.’ Then Harriet loses track of her notebook, and it ends up in the wrong hands. Before Harriet 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?”
You can get quite a bit of backstory on Harriet the Spy from the letters of her editor Ursula Nordstrom. In Leonard Marcus’s Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom we learn that “Prior to the publication of Harriet, LF [Louise Fitzhugh] had been known as the illustrator of a send-up of Eloise called Suzuki Beane, by Sandra Scopperttone.” I have searched in vain to see a copy of Suzuki Beane for years, by the way. Apparently there is a copy lurking within my library. Someday I shall request it and see what all the fuss was about.
In a letter to Charlotte Zolotow, Nordstrom mentioned the beginnings of Harriet the Spy in this way. “Anyhow, if you hadn’t called my attention to that Fitzhugh unpublishable picture book we would never have drawn Harriet the Spy out of Louise.” She related the full story of Louise’s life and writing in a later letter to Joan Robbins. You see Zolotow, then a senior editor at Harper, had showed Nordstrom some sample pages from Fitzhugh of what would become Harriet’s words about her classmates. So they brought in Louise to explain to her what they wanted the book to be. “Louise sat sullenly, hands jammed into her pockets, while we expressed enthusiasm over what we’d seen . . . After at least an hour she looked up and said, ‘So you’re not really interested, are you?’ We almost died.” Eventually they persuaded her to expand the text, she did, and it was a hit.
Controversy city when this book came out though, folks. According to Dear Genius, “A group of librarians from Miami, Florida had written to say they had found Harriet ‘completely unchildlike’ and “more suitable for a New Yorker piece than a children’s book.” George Woods of the Times wouldn’t even give it to his children. Even today you can look at the comments from parents on Common Sense Media or Amazon and note their horror that Harriet is not an obedient, perfect child.
In American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction, the point of Harriet the Spy is summed up quite neatly. “What Harriet learns is the difference between writing and mere spying, between a social act and a self-indulgent one. The difference is not in what she does or who she is, but in her reasons for doing what comes so naturally and uncontrollably.” I love that distinction.
In Everything I Need to Know I Learned in a Children’s Book, Dr. Perri Klass (who teaches pediatrics and journalism at NYU) also pinpoints what it is about the book that makes it as good as it is. “The most important lesson of Harriet the Spy . . . is a message about the intoxicating and addictive joys of observation, of looking at the people across from you on the bus, or sitting next to you at the coffee shop counter, or ahead of you in line, and noting down the details of appearance and clothing and gesture – of listening in on their conversations (of course) – of trying to figure out their family dynamics and their back story. That’s what Harriet did with her spy route and her spy notebook – she worked on figuring out the world and its stories. She did it because she was driven to do it; she did it because she had figured out how much fun it was; she did it because it was her way of operating in the world and making it her own.”
But perhaps the best, and certainly my favorite, article on Louise Fitzhugh and Harriet was the January/February 2005 article in Horn Book by K.T. Horning called “On Spies and Purple Socks and Such“. Ms. Horning recalls what it was to grow up gay and to have no role models, until she met Harriet Welsch. She was astonished by the book, but one aspect in particular. “.. the thing that shocked me the most about Harriet was her cross-dressing. It’s an aspect of the novel that girls today would miss entirely (thank goodness!), but in 1965 Harriet’s spy clothes struck me as revolutionary. Back then, girls in blue jeans and hooded sweatshirts were uncommon, though not unheard of. But Harriet’s high-top sneakers were solely boys’ wear. I know for sure, because I used to beg my otherwise indulgent, liberal parents for them, and they refused, although they bought them regularly for my brothers.” Horning goes on to explain why this book was so revolutionary for her and other queer kids of the time period. If you’re going to know your Harriet the Spy, I’d pretty much call this required reading.
There were two real sequels, of a sort, and several fake sequels, of a sort. The real sequels written by Ms. Fitzhugh were The Long Secret (maybe the best known period book for kids today) and Sport (which is out of print… a scandal!). The fake sequels include Harriet the Spy, Double Agent by Maya Gold and Harriet Spies Again by Helen Ericson. There may be more faux Harriet out there, but those are the two that come most immediately to mind.
Harriet won no awards, with the possible exception of the Sequoyah Book Award and the New York Times Outstanding Book Award in 1964. In fact, in 1965 the Newbery Award winner was Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska. The Honor book was Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt. Perfectly fine books, but they were clearly no Harriet the Spy.
- Can you really claim to love a book unless you tattoo it on your body?
The Chicago Tribune said it was, “[A] superb portrait of an extraordinary child.”
Said School Library Journal, “Harriet the Spy bursts with life.”
A lot more covers out there than I remembered. These were just the ones I could get big enough scans of:
In 1996 Nickelodeon made a filmed version with Michelle Trachtenberg (she’ll always be Dawn from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to me) as Harriet and Rosie O’Donnell as Oh Golly. Though I was incensed by the fact that Harriet was now without glasses, I didn’t mind the film at the time. I do wonder how I’d view it now.
More recently there was . . . oh, you can just see it here. That growly noise you keep hearing coming up from the earth is the sound of Louise Fitzhugh rolling, multiple consecutive times, over in her grave.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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