Review: Harriet the Spy

And now, after last week’s chapter by chapter readalong, and look at essays, my review of Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.

The Plot: Harriet, eleven, writes down all she observes about her family, friends, and neighbors. When her private, and honest, notebook falls into the hands of her classmates, she has to face the unpleasant consequences.

The Good: Oh, Harriet!

I read Harriet as a child, discovering her as a child. My memories of that — other than the cover image of a red sweatshirt trumping the blue one described in the book — are focused on the “spying” element of Harriet’s life. The outfit, the route, her sneaking in and around homes, peaking in windows, and, of course, the honest, unvarnished, unfiltered observations she wrote down.

There were things that didn’t register me, as a 1970s child of the suburbs, reading about a 1960s child in New York City. Because I lived in a house, I didn’t realize the significance of Harriet living in a house. I wasn’t quite sure who or what Ole Golly’s role was, but I accepted her being there and that her loss was significant. Harriet’s spy clothes didn’t seem out of the ordinary, and my focus was less on her dressing like a boy and more on that her clothes were old. Egg cremes, I assumed, were made with raw egg and thought that was gross.

As I reread, now, as an adult, what struck me first and foremost was Harriet herself. Her independence and her strong sense of self. I also noted the parts were Harriet, despite calling herself a spy who wants to know everything, didn’t realize what was going on around her. She had no clue that Ole Golly was getting engaged; she didn’t realize when her schoolmates were talking about her or intending for messages to be intercepted. This underscored, for me, just how much a child Harriet was; how typical, how ordinary. She is not a superhero or above average: she is just like the child who reads about her.

Part of Harriet being like her reader, wherever that reader lives, or whatever the family background, are Harriet’s emotions. With her notebook, with the reader, she is honest about what she thinks and feels; honest about what she thinks she sees. There is an attraction to that honesty, whether the reader is that honest or wishes they were. And then she is exposed: the world sees what she really thinks. Or, at least, what she was thinking at that moment in time. Her privacy is violated.

And then this is when Harriet becomes her most real. Because, before, you couldn’t really accuse her of being “mean” because it was just her and her notebook. Now, though, that changes. After her classmates get angry and team up against her, Harriet’s words and actions shift. I confess, I didn’t reread and annotate whether or not her observations of others changed, but her actions certainly did, beginning with tripping one classmate and then writing a list of things she knows will hurt them. And actually doing those things.

One thing I like about this — that Harriet having the outlet of writing out her feelings meant she didn’t express them, so actually helped her. I loved how the adults in her world didn’t truly interfere in her life or the lives of their children: the level to which they allowed them to work things out, to the extent they are even aware of what is happening. No helicopter parents here. The parents stepped in when they needed to: the letter from Ole Golly, helping Harriet to channel her need to write to a more productive outlet. 

The easy answer for Harriet, for a book, is to have Harriet realize that she is being mean — mean because she’s been hurt. Mean because she doesn’t realize the cycle she contributed to, and that by doing these things she is just making it worse. To have her realize that she’s being mean when she starts tripping people, and that even if she didn’t intend to be mean when she writing in her notebook that people saw it as mean. To have Harriet learn empathy. To have her feel bad and resolve to be a better person.

But Harriet the Spy isn’t easy. Instead, it gives a more complex answer. It allows Harriet to feel and believe exactly how she feels and believes, without making her feel guilty about it. Without making the reader feel guilty. There is no shaming.

Instead, there is Ole Golly’s words of wisdom: Apologize. A lie that makes someone feel better isn’t bad. Writing is to put love into the world, not to hurt others. This gives Harriet both a structure to operate under, but also introduces the child to the world of grownups, a world that isn’t black and white, but is full of shades of gray. It is about the delicate balance between being true to oneself, but not hurting others. It’s a balance that some people never learn, never caring that their “honesty” hurts others; thinking their own feelings always trump others.

In the essays in the Fiftieth Anniversary edition, many focused on Harriet as writer. And that is there. And, of course, writers are going to concentrate on that part of Harriet the Spy. But also there is this fundamental lesson about growing up: sometimes, you have to lie. Just don’t lie to yourself. And you have to make a decision on how to use your words: to hurt? Or to put love into the world? Those words can be the newspaper or notebook that Harriet writes, but it is also all human interaction.

Harriet The Spy: Essays

And now, the various essays about Harriet the Spy included in the 50th Anniversary Edition!

harriet 2 300x300 Harriet The Spy Book Two

These essays are much more for the adult reader, but that is OK. Again, I’m not recapping the essay, just jotting down my reactions.

Judy Blume

Read Harriet as an adult, and notes how the kids in here are real because they have secrets and are curious. “Real” makes me also think of how Harriet is real in that she’s, well, not “nice”. She’s not the perfect little girl.

Meg Cabot

Notes how kids today are doing what Harriet did, just on the Internet. The lesson that words can hurt is valuable. But words can also heals. And damn, we all need an Ole Golly. And if this isn’t a reminder that kids are doing what kids have always done, the tech changes but the kids don’t!

Nick Clark

Oh! He knew/lived in this neighborhood! Notes Harriet is “what a young woman could become.” I’d note: could become something other than what everyone expects.

Patricia Reilly Giff

Reading it to a 4th grade of remedial students — and how much it mattered to them to hear about a strong female character who is tough and honest. “Honest” — and I’m thinking how important this is to kids, to know they can be honest with themselves, and now I’m wondering about what happens when a kid isn’t honest. And how Harriet’s problems escalated when she didn’t have a place to be honest.

Lenore Look

Harriet made keeping a journal fun. She says “I’m amazed that I connected with Harriet at all” and I want to shout ME TOO. As Look says, “as a third grader, I saw none of our differences.” “All I saw then was a girl with a notebook.

And I’d add, because Harriet has many people who love her who aren’t now writers even if they did carry a notebook around and spy for a while after reading it — it wasn’t just seeing that girl with a notebook. It was seeing a girl whose thoughts and emotions were real and unvarnished and honest.

Lois Lowry

Ah, someone who never read it until now! More aware of her than knowing!

Gregory Maguire

“Harriet was honest, which is not the same as mean.” As a kid, I’d agree with him. And with it being part of a journal not intended to be shared, I’d agree. But. But. But. After? Harriet DOES cross over to mean. Right or wrong, it doesn’t matter. What matters is it’s understandable. And, well, it is mean, to trip someone or cut their hair off or hide a frog in their desk.

And — well, I think it diminishes Harriet, a bit, to not acknowledge that meanness.

Leonard S. Marcus

Let me just enjoy the historical story of Harriet getting published and wishing there was more.

Kirsten Miller

And pointing out that kids aren’t always likeable and can be brats and that’s OK. (Dare I say — that’s honest.)  Harriet isn’t a “hero” and that’s the point. “The truth can be more comforting than fantasy.” And the truth of who Harriet is… yes. That matters more than notebooks.Pat Scles

Pat Scales

Role models! Feminists! Harriet knowing what she wants and going for it. She “gives girls permission to feel sad and lonely.” And, I’d add, to feel angry. Or mean. Or violent. Or betrayed. Or any of those other messy emotions that Harriet feels.

And that while Harriet learns lessons: she remains herself.

Anita Silvey

A look at what it means to review! And not to assume that what you dislike is what others will dislike. Given the reviews of Harriet that harp on role models, etc., some wise stuff here.

Rebecca Stead

Looks at the difference between memory of childhood reading and actuality. “a book about loneliness.” YES. I didn’t see that then. I do now. And I see how that loneliness drives so many things, even before Ole Golly leaves.

Elizabeth Winthrop

And journals and honesty. A place to be honest.

Judy Zuckerman

Oh, the first to have had a Ole Golly! And Harriet giving us dreams of boldness!

It’s not included here, but I’d like to add one of my favorite essays about a child’s book:

On Spies and Purple Socks and Such by Kathleen T. Horning, The Horn Book, Jan/Feb 2005 — I love this because it teaches me the different ways a book can have meaning, the different comforts it can give. And the different ways a text can be read. And, honestly, as someone who read this in the 70s, (a golden age, now, of kids just dressing in clothes that were for kids) I didn’t get that Harriet’s dressing as she did meant something. I didn’t know. I picked up on her mother not wanting her to wear ripped jeans, but I didn’t realize that the act of wearing jeans and sneakers was in itself significant. Horning’s essay helped me not just see how it mattered for Harriet, but is a reminder to me to always think about the context of a book for the time it was written. What would the reader of the time know that we don’t? What would they recognize that we don’t?

Of course, there are more important things in Horning’s essay. If you haven’t read it yet, I’m a bit jealous of you reading if for the first time.




Harriet The Spy Book Three

And now… the final chapters of Harriet the Spy!

harriet 2 300x300 Harriet The Spy Book Two

Book Three

Chapter Fifteen

Back in her spy route! Which, shows both Harriet back on her route but also gives the reader some resolution.

(also just in general, I kind of like how often Harriet is home from school, home sick — that her parents let her. that she reacts physically, if not intentionally emotionally.)

Harrison and his one cat: as a kid, I read this and thought, how sweet, he has a cat, and I believed that it was his happy ending: one cat. one man. But, now as an adult — I think it’s one cat NOW but let’s check back in with him in a few months, it’ll by kitty heaven once again.

And finally Harriet wants to go to school!

The club — now that they no longer against Harriet, now that the initial anger at Harriet has passed — is beginning to fall apart. Their own differences are coming to light.

A letter from Ole Golly! Why did I remember this as an actual visit?!? And I love that Ole Golly says a writer does more than take notes. They write stories.

I also love how Ole Golly gives her advice as if she has no idea what has happened, when she totally has — and totally has written because Harriet’s parents asked her to write — and again, this goes over Harriet’s head.  And Ole Golly gives terrific advice: Apologize. Lie.

And this is part of growing up: “little lies that make people feel better are not bad.” Because also turn this around: Harriet wants those little lies, from others, even if she doesn’t realize it. Yet. But how she reacted when they were all being “honest” to her after the notebook incident? Yeah. Little lies.

Remember that writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends.”

WOW. WOW, Ole Golly — because she also acts a deeper question, here. How much of what she was writing, even in privacy, was against them? For whatever reasons? Or is Ole Golly just talking about post-discovery notes?

But to yourself, always be true.” yes. yes. yes. Wear the mask you have to, for the world, to make people feel better, to put love out in the world, to not use as weapons — but still, always, know yourself and be true.

And here is Ole Golly illustrating the truth of all this: “I’m not missing you.

(OK, in looking for things that may confuse today’s reader –the typewriter.)

And Harriet is now editor of her page for the school paper, and this is where the non-helicoptering parenting shows its strength. In that they recognized the problem as Harriet needing an outlet for her writing. And now figure that out. They give Harriet the space and room to grow, to work it out herself, rather than hovering and controlling.

Oh! Class voting and this goes through, but is it a thaw to Harriet? A bit of a desire to see what she’ll write? Votes for Beth Ellen? Or against Marion and Rachel?

(And I just realized that Harriet got away with all her listed revenge things. Which is great because in real life? Things go unpunished.)

Chapter Sixteen

Harriet is smart enough to write about other people!

It’s always different when the target is other people!

…. and I just realized Harriet is a troll.

And now the Welsch parents are talking about their friends, and I look at Harriet, and for all her uniqueness, man, was she just doing a version of what her mother does? Mrs. Welsch talks about her friends, Harriet writes it down?

Also, I’m amused that the Welsch family friends are the parents of Harriet’s friends.

And after writing some positive things, Harriet REPEATS THE THINGS HER PARENTS SAID. Ha ha ha ha. At least it’s not about the kids, right? (And is Carrie’s mom, married to the doctor, fooling around with Laura’s dad?!? So Mad Men of them!)

Since Harriet writes about her own dad — I guess it lessens people being mad at her.

The Spy Catcher club collapses, with a little push from Harriet.

And… “I have a nice life.” And — isn’t this what we all want? And hasn’t Harriet gone through a lot to not just get to this point, but recognize that about her life? To recognize it’s true, even without Ole Golly?

A retraction! So smart! And most importantly: she did it herself. This was Harriet’s choice — yes, Ole Golly told her to apologize and lie; but Harriet figured out the way to do that, to communicate that, to her classmates in a way they’d listen. Harriet did that: ensuring she’d continue the nice life she wanted, with the friends she wants, and, well, without the enemies.

And loving again the skipping school to avoid embarrassment. And that her parents allow that. Because, to me, that is kind parenting.

the world was beautiful, would always be, would always sing, could hold no disappointments” and I just love this — love —

And there is that, her world, and Sport and Janie, and — “I can get some real work done.”

And Harriet has grown, grown more into herself, but not changed. She is true to herself.



Harriet The Spy Book Two

And now, reading Book Two of Harriet the Spy!

Book Two, AKA Life Without Ole Golly.

Chapter Seven

Harriet’s father is named Harry, which explains her own name, but isn’t it weird that it’s also the name of Janie’s dad?

Harriet is the onion! With improvised dances! What kind of school is this?

More caustic thoughts about people. And some great descriptions! Miss Berry “looked as though she had just come up out of a subway and didn’t know east from west.

Chapter Eight

Spying, wanting to share with Ole Golly, and can’t.

And here, the only thing I really have an issue with for this book: the Italian family is too over the top, too much of a stereotype. Even knowing it’s Harriet’s limited, prejudiced viewpoint, it’s a bit much.

Withers lost his cats! He’s alone!

Chapter Nine

I’ll give Harriet this. She at least is trying to be an onion.

Oh, the family has a nameless maid to go with the nameless cook.

Love the family bonding and laughing over being an onion! Would this have been possible if Ole golly was there? But then Harriet leaves them, leaves the moment, to write it down. And it’s awkward.

And Harriet — she’s out of sorts, and can’t figure out why. Not realizing how to process Ole Golly’s loss, and not having her, and, well, also getting older.

Oh, Harriet. Talking about Mrs. Plumber: “Some people just don’t think things out.” Could be talking about herself.

HARRIET IS DISCOVERED. I thought this was later in the book! What a kick in the teeth after Ole Golly’s loss!

Wait, Nadine winks at Harriet. Did Nadine know Harriet was in there? Has Nadine known the whole time?

Well, how could Harriet have been walking around in that outfit for years and people not know?

And Harriet takes out grumpiness on others.

Chapter Ten

It’s time for tag and again, I thought this happened later in the book!

Harriet keeps getting knocked down — Ole Golly, discovered in her spy route, and now this.

And I missed that it’s Janie, her friend Janie, going through it and reading it.

“and suddenly Harriet M. Welsch was afraid. [Her classmates] just looked and looked, and their eyes were the meanest eyes she had ever seen.”

ARGH. Her private notebooks! Exposed! Made public.

And it’s all the worse that her private thoughts are, well, so honest. Which is hurtful to those they are about.

So Harriet gets a new notebook. And starts writing again, in front of them. She’s like a notebook addict.

The revenge of the classmates starts. And once again we see how ordinary Harriet actually is — how her spying hasn’t really taught her any human insights or additional awareness — because the poor thing doesn’t realize the notes she intercepts are MEANT to be read by her.

And everybody hates her. And she just wants her cake.

Oh, Harriet. One minute, you’re the best spy ever. The next, you don’t realize that your doctor is also your classmate’s father.

Chapter Eleven

And now Harriet is spying on her friends. They’re building a clubhouse, united — and still, she doesn’t quite realize they are bonding against her. Talking about her.

And I forgot she wrote an anonymous note that would obviously be from her.

The ink spill! In 1964, they had bottles of ink?

I love that the teachers don’t realize what is going on. And the parents, they don’t either — even though the doctor knew a bit about it. Yet they are so uninvolved.

“The Spy Catcher Club.” Well, they’re honest.

Chapter Twelve

So Harriet…. writes more. I feel both terrible for Harriet, yet at the same time, frustrated that she doesn’t see her role in what happened and is happening. It’s like it’s being done to her, for no good reason.

And now the notebook is interfering with school.

I’m not sure, but I think her observations about others may be getting worse? Meaner? More critical?

And wondering how all readers are, in a way, Harriets. Observing others in stories, judging.

Harriet is ignoring all school work, getting further and further into her own head, away from the world.

Harriet obviously has feelings about all this. Is hurt. But she really doesn’t seem to get her role in this; that she wrote hurtful things and people will react accordingly. But then, she is eleven. A child. Who is still the center of the universe, not quite convinced that others exist outside of how she wants them to exist for her.

So her mother takes the notebook, because she’s not doing her schoolwork, and while the child me hater her mother for this the adult me totally understands and thinks, hey, it’s just while she’s at school.

Chapter Thirteen

And now that Harriet doesn’t have a notebook as an outlet, her feelings and emotions have to go somewhere. I know that often Harriet is seen as a writer, but, well, here it seems as if it’s something else.

That Harriet is a bundle of emotions, including anger and fear and loneliness and want, and the notebook was her safe outlet. Without it, now, those feelings have to go somewhere, be acted on somehow.

So she trips Pinky and is HAPPY about it.

I love Harriet, for having these emotions and owning it and not being ashamed. Because just as her notebook was her outlet for intense emotions, reading this can be an outlet for those kids having those feelings.

And… wow. She causes a lot of chaos. And makes a list to do even more.

What is the matter with Harriet? It’s got to be more than Ole Golly being gone. That’s part of it…. but it’s also just, well, being human and growing up and not being perfect, but a messy mix of emotions.

And she escapes into sleep.

Chapter Fourteen

I guess the throwing the shoe meant her parents had to pay attention, because now she visits a doctor who is clearly a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Poor Harriet: she is reaching out, doesn’t know how, visits Janie and Sport. But she can’t just restart a friendship.

And next: Book Three!

Harriet The Spy Book One

And now, my Harriet the Spy reread!

Today, it’s Book One. I’m going through chapter by chapter, doing my reactions. So, yes, this will make little sense to anyone who hasn’t read Harriet.

Tomorrow will be Book Two; Wednesday, Book Three; Thursday, the Tributes; and Friday, my review.

Oh, there’s a map! And this was published in 1964? Two years before I was born? I read this in the 70s, and it seemed current then. I wonder how it’ll hold up?

Chapter 1

I forgot about playing Town!!!

And Harriet has a house with a courtyard and a tree? And her father “works in television”? And Sport’s father is a writer. I love how Fitzhugh is revealing so much in these few paragraphs.

And wow, Harriet is bossy! “In this town, everybody goes to bed at nine-thirty.” Love the combo of Harriet in charge, Sport doesn’t have a chance, and Harriet truly believing she knows it all.

And also Harriet revealing some things about those around her. The writer based on Sport’s dad? Is in the bar.

And Ole Golly! Harriet’s nurse! And a cook! Who never gets a name! (A nameless servant/staff member/employee would never happen in a book today.)

Notebooks, her route: the Dei Santi family, Robinsons, Harrison Withers, Mrs. Plumber.

I don’t think I’d like to live where any of these people live or do the things they do.” I just adore Harriet. Her attitude.  And I’d also forgotten she has no middle name, she gives herself the “M” in “Harriet M. Welsch.”

The trip to Ole Golly’s mother, and I thought, for sure, this happened later on in the story. But what a way to show us Ole Golly and Harriet and Sport.

Chapter Two

And school starts. “I want to know everything, everything, everything in the world, everything, everything. I will be a spy and know everything.” I love Harriet. Her confidence. Her thirst.

And of course the tomato sandwiches! And Harriet wanting her mother to remind her to drink the milk, because it made her feel comfortable.

OK, now we are at Harriet’s sixth grade class in a private school: Harriet, Janie, Sport, Pinky Whitehead (is he related to Mrs Whitehead, the Dean?), Beth Ellen, Rachel, Marion, Carrie, Laura, the Boy in the Purple Socks. That’s just ten. That’s small. Which means that Harriet’s and her two friends are a third of the class, roughly speaking: not so isolated, or not-popular, as I remember.

At this point, I keep imagining all the parents are out of Mad Men.

“Does his mother hate him? If I had him I’d hate him.” Harsh, Harriet.

And now, the spy clothes!

Harriet’s blue jeans, all ripped up, and her belt with her tools, and that dark blue sweatshirt —

Wait, what?

Harriet has a RED sweatshirt, it’s on all the covers, and it’s why even now, when I put on a red hoodie, I think of Harriet.

Yet here it is:

And just to remind you, to the side, the RED sweatshirt that Harriet is wearing.

9780440416791Now, I get why red would be used on the cover, to pop the color. But wow. I feel like I’ve lost a bit of childhood.

Chapter Three

The spy route, which includes a bit of breaking and entering. Oh! Mrs. Plumber, who in my head was old? Is 40!!! Let that sink in a while, OK. Because a 40 year old divorced rich lady is way different than what I’d been picturing.

Egg creme: for years I thought this was made with a raw egg or worse, a cooked egg, and couldn’t understand why anyone would want one.

And the visit to Sport’s house reinforces to me, as an adult, that Sport’s father has a bit of a drinking problem. I just thought Sport’s dad, was, well, irresponsible or self-involved.

Harrison and all his cats. Still grosses me out.

Chapter Four

The Robinsons also have a gun collection! And Harriet is so casual and cold in some of her observations: “then they might kill it.”

I love her level of self: where she both thinks she knows it all, but also that when she doesn’t expect or want attention she won’t get it. Like how she’s all over the neighborhood in this spy outfit, yet doesn’t think anyone notices. And expects to write all this stuff and that it’ll never be read.

Oh, and Janie’s family has a maid. I don’t think, middle class kid that I was, that I picked up on how these kids were from rich families.

Oh! And this, this, so shows a child’s view of the future, thinking of themselves as an adult yet at the same time so grounded in the experiences of childhood that cannot imagine adulthood: “but it would be at night and I wouldn’t be allowed out.”

Wait, is Janie’s father named Harry?

Chapter Five

I love Harriet’s preemptive shouting tantrum. I love that she has a tantrum. At eleven.

Ole Golly’s relationship with Harriet versus her parents. And Mr. Waldenstein, the delivery man!

And Harriet, convinced she knows Ole Golly best!

If Harriet’s parents met on the boat to Europe, and Harriet is eleven in 1964, that would mean, what, late 40s? Early 50s? I wonder if readers today just think this is a cruise, rather than routine travel. And I like that they met by her father throwing up on her mother.

And the scene with Harriet and her mother is sweet.

Chapter Six

Interesting: Ole Golly is having her boyfriend over for dinner. To meet Harriet, I guess? And they call each other Mr. and Miss? Even in 1964, that seems oddly formal. Wait, they’re going by George and Catherine now.

I like Mr. W’s backstory, but it seems a bit strange. He had a breakdown? And appears to have abandoned his child, but who knows how old the son is? I mean, his simplified life is sweet —

“Two living as one.” Oh, poor Harriet may be “the Spy” but she’s not good at reaching conclusions from what she spies on. She doesn’t get that Mr W and Ole Golly are talking marriage. Neither did I, the first time around.

And now they are off to the movies! With Harriet INSIDE the delivery box. And after they go to the drugstore and Harriet has two egg cremes.

I know what’s coming, but I was oblivious when I read this the first time. Didn’t realize just how late they were out, and, also, that Ole Golly had done this, gone out late with Harriet, with no note left. (This is one of the areas where 1964 matters, because no cell phone.) It seems irresponsible of Ole Golly, and maybe it shows how much she cares for Mr. W? On the flip side, Ole Golly has worked for the family since Harriet’s birth. Where is the trust?

Oh, right, she’s just the nurse. Class distinctions come slamming into place, by Mrs. Welsch’s treatment of Ole Golly.

But it is midnight and their child is missing.

And poor Ole Golly! Gets engaged, becomes a verbal punching bag, gets fired, and handles it all so well with a great speech to Mrs. Welsch with Ole Golly getting the upper hand. She’s not getting fired, she’s quitting, so there!

(Another kind of 1964 thing, with her quitting to get married, I mean, she can’t be a live-in and have her own life, but really, all or nothing for this job? But Harriet is in sixth grade.)

Also, raise your hand if you think something awful happened at the dinner part, which is why Mrs. Welsch threw such a fit.

And “the time has come, the walrus said,” always makes me think of Harriet and Ole Golly. Always.

And wowza, a quick marriage is planned! And visiting Canada? What about his cashier promotion, will that wait? But this explains why Ole Golly is quitting.

“Tears never bring anything back.”

We should all have an Ole Golly.

But can we take a moment? Ole? What the heck is that, even? A nickname from a baby Harriet?

And I had no idea Ole Golly was leaving so soon.

Tomorrow, Book Two!