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Harriet the Spy

Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh This isn’t a great children’s book. This is a great book whose protagonist happens to be very young.

This is a book that manages to be shocking in spite of the absence of sex, drugs, and violence. Harriet isn’t forced to kick arse in a fight to the death, or struggle to feed her family. On the contrary, the only shocking thing about her personal circumstances is how privileged she is. Her family employs a housemaid, a cook, and a “nurse” improbably named Ole Golly.

It can be hard for a modern reader of any age to understand what exactly that last job entails. Harriet isn’t sick, or sickly, so Ole Golly isn’t that kind of nurse. Ole Golly isn’t a babysitter exactly, either. She does stay with Harriet when her parents go to parties at night, which is frequently; but she doesn’t supervise Harriet very closely, or even walk her to school. She’s a bit like a governess, but she doesn’t teach lessons.

Actually, she does. She just isn’t paid to. And although Harriet leads a pampered existence, Ole Golly believes she can handle tough truths. “Tears won’t bring me back,” she says sternly when she has to leave Harriet for good. “Remember that. Tears never bring anything back. Life is a struggle and a good spy gets in there and fights. Remember that. No nonsense.”

And, later, in a letter:

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 from 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.

Don’t sit around missing me when I’m gone. Life is tough, and eleven years old is plenty old enough to get out there and start fighting for what you need.

Tell that to a generation who grew up on the creepy stalker vision of parental care presented in Love You Forever.

This may not sound too startling to people who regularly devour dystopian and gritty urban YA fiction. Yes, Katniss has to fight actual life-or-death battles. But the whole point of her story is that she shouldn’t have to. Harriet is taught early on that life is a fight, and even members of the well-fed elite have to jump into the ring.

Granted, Harriet’s battles are brought on by her own worst qualities. She has a lot of them. She is not a winning, adorable child. She’s blunt and obnoxious and thinks mean things even about the people she cares about. And she doesn’t care about many.

She alienates everyone she knows with her writing. And then she wins them back – with her writing.

This book has aged well in every sense. It’s fun for an adult to read or reread because the writing is ridiculously, enviably good. It’s a book to give to children for the same reason. It’s also a terrific cautionary tale for very modern reasons.

As Meg Cabot, author of the Princess Diaries series, points out in her short appreciative essay:

Louise Fitzhugh could not have known how prescient Harriet the Spy was. Fifty years after its publication, some young girls and boys (and even old ones too) are still recording their innermost thoughts and feelings, only now they’re doing it far too publicly on the Internet, causing themselves untold amounts of trouble.

If only they listened to Ole Golly.

Cabot’s essay is included along with several others, all by prominent writers. Gregory Maguire’s even includes an excerpt from an early diary he kept after being inspired by Harriet’s example:

Tonight when we were going to swim, Annie said, “Aaahh! There’s a spider in my goggles.”
Joe said, “Drown it! Throw it in the lake!”
Annie said, “No, don’t drown it.”
I said, “Annie, since when have you cared about the welfare of a measly spider?”
She said, “It’s not that. I just don’t want any drowned spiders in any lake that I intend to swim in.”

Read this book if you haven’t already. Reread it if it’s been awhile. And get this anniversary edition if you don’t already have your own copy of Harriet. It’s a lot of fun to see how other authors were affected by the abrasive but compelling Harriet M. Welsch.