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Harriet the Spy ()

NEA 100 Best Children's Books (85)

    'I want to know everything, everything,' screeched Harriet suddenly, lying back and bouncing up
    and down on the bed. 'Everything in the world, everything, everything. I will be a spy and know
        -Harriet the Spy

When I first read this book, as a kid, I felt betrayed.  I was one of those boys who tore through Hardy Boys books and Encyclopaedia Brown mysteries, even dipping into the occasional Nancy Drew in a pinch.  So despite the fact that the title indicated the hero was a girl, I assumed she'd at least by a spy, a James Bond kind of spy.  But no, instead, she was just an annoying brat who snooped on all her friends,  neighbors, and the household staff.  What a stinkin' gyp!

Now, returning to the book as an adult, I also see that it is also really mean-spirited.  [N.B. : If you've not read the book and plan to, you might not wish to read any further.]  Harriet is an unhappy little girl, growing up in New York City, whose upper class parents mostly ignore her.  Her one hobby is spying on the people around her and making snide observations about them in a journal.  She runs into a rough patch when her beloved housekeeper, Ole Golly, surprisingly falls in love and moves away.  Her behavior at school and home deteriorates and things really get ugly when her journal is discovered by classmates and read aloud.  But she then follows the advice in a letter from Golly :

        Dear Harriet,

          I have been thinking about you and I have
          decided that if you are ever going to be a writer
          it is time you got cracking. You are eleven years
          old and haven't written a thing but notes. Make
          a story out of some of those notes and send it to

                'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,'--that is

                ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'

                John Keats. And don't you ever forget it.

          Now in case you ever run into the following
          problem, I want to tell you about it. Naturally,
          you put down the truth in your notebooks. What
          would be the point if you didn't? and naturally
          those notebooks shouldn't be read by anyone
          else, but if they are, then, 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.

          Otherwise you are going to lose a friend. Little
          lies that make people feel better are not bad, like
          thanking someone for a meal they made even if
          you hated it, or telling a sick person they look
          better when they don't, or someone with a
          hideous new hat that it's lovely. Remember that
          writing is to put love in the world, not to use
          against your friends. But to yourself you must
          always tell the truth.

          Another thing. If you're missing me I want you
          to know I'm not missing you. Gone is gone. I
          never miss anything or anyone because it all
          becomes a lovely memory. I guard my memories
          and love them, but I don't get in them and lie
          down. You can even make stories form yours, but
          remember, they don't come back. Just think how
          awful it would be if they did. You don't need me
          now. You're eleven years old which is old enough
          to get busy at growing up to be the person you
          want to be.

         No more nonsense,
          Ole Golly Waldenstein

After pretending that she didn't mean the things she wrote, Harriet is rewarded with a position on the school paper and presumably lives happily ever after.

And what are the lessons we've learned ?  That it's okay to snoop is the most obvious, but the least significant.  More important is the implicit suggestion that this eleven year old--never mind anyone else--is able to discern the "truth" about people by observing them and that she can then judge them and record those judgments where they will inevitably be found one day.  Think about the presumption here.  What responsible adult would teach a child such a thing ?

Of course, the hidden agenda here is the suggestion that writers are uniquely capable of perceiving "truth" and that the truth can be so dangerous that they may not be able to share all of it.  It comes as no surprise to find many references to the influence of this book on young writers, particularly women, who claim that in its pages they found their calling.  This message is quite writerly and must be quite comforting, but it is also dead wrong.

Many years ago another author offered the opposite lesson :

    1    Judge not, that ye be not judged.

    2     For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall
          be measured to you again. Mk. 4.24

    3    And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that
          is in thine own eye?

    4    Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a
          beam is in thine own eye?

    5    Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to
          cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.
              -The Gospel According to Matthew, 7:1-7:5

That still seems like pretty sound advice and a more appropriate lesson for children.


Grade: (D)


Book-related and General Links:
    -HarperCollins Children's Books : Banned Books
    -Purple Socks : A Louise Fitzhugh Tribute Site
    -Louise Fitzhugh (page is created and maintained by Autumn Winters, a Library Science student in the UNC School of Information and Library Science.)
    -ESSAY : Time proves editor, kids right about 'Harriet the Spy' (St. Petersburg Times)
    -ESSAY : Gilligan as a Feminist Extension of Kohlberg (Leah Shah, E314L: Women's Popular Genres)
    -ESSAY : For girls only  (Laura Green, Salon)
    -ESSAY :  A gold star for tedium : Do the Newbery Medal-winning children's books really have to bereally have to be so dreary? (E.J. Graff, Jan. 25, 2001, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Reading the World as Teachers/Learners (Betty Smith Franklin/Richard Pringle, Goucher College)
    -REVIEW : of Harriet the Spy (Karen MacPherson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
    -REVIEW : of Harriet the Spy (TIM WALKER , Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Harriet the Spy : The Spy Who Came in for Cake and Milk  (Barbara Moshofsky)
    -REVIEW : of Harriet the Spy (Heartless Bitches International)
    -REVIEW : of Harriet the Spy (Nancy Matson)
    -REVIEW : of Harriet the Spy (Peter Neumeyer, Ph.D.)
    -REVIEW : of Dirty Laundry: Stories about Family Secrets by Lisa Rowe Fraustino : Go Ask Harriet (Stephanie Zacharek, Hungry Mind)

    -INFO : Harriet the Spy (1996) (
    -REVIEW : of Harriet the Spy  (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of Harriet the Spy  (James Berardinelli)
    -REVIEW : of Harriet the Spy  (JOHN POWELL, Jam! Showbiz)
    -REVIEW :  of Harriet the Spy (Bruce Kirkland, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW :  of Harriet the Spy  (Monica Sullivan, Movie Magazine International)
    -REVIEW :  of Harriet the Spy  (Marcus Mann, Christian Spotlight on the Movies)
    -REVIEW : of Harriet the Spy (David Templeton, MetroActive)
    -REVIEW : The Problem of Kids These Days : Hammering down the non-conformist in Harriet the Spy. (Ed Spivey Jr., Sojourners)