Harriet the Spy

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet is going to be a writer.  Her investments in this future career include playing the game “Town” repeatedly (which sounds like one of the dullest games on earth) and spying on people.  The spying is really what she likes best.  She observes people in her Manhattan neighborhood and then she scribbles her thoughts down in her many notebooks.  An only child with disinterested parents and only a few friends, this is Harriet’s main interaction with the world. This and the nanny who raised her.  When the nanny (Ole Golly) leaves to get married, Harriet’s world begins to collapse.  Things go from bad to worse when her notebook is discovered and her innermost thoughts are shared with the world.  Her classmates undertake a very high level bullying project by way of revenge.  The sad part is, you can’t really blame them.  Harriet is a miserable child.  Her writings are downright nasty.

Harriet the Spy is a beloved childhood classic for many, but I can’t even say as I read it growing up.  I owned it, but I had no recollection of it.  Which is probably for the best, as it was exactly the kind of book I did not like as a child.  I preferred my characters likeable, and harbored a particular hatred for those that were bad (see: Quimby, Ramona).  While I appreciate Fitzhugh’s depiction of children as intelligent and terrible creative when it comes to torturing their peers, the writing will be difficult going for many young readers.  Harriet is 11 in the book and I would advise fifth grade or higher for the reading level.  Younger readers, even ones who usually can handle challenging books may struggle with both staying interested and picking up on the real motivations of characters.

On the positive side, there are a variety of family structures (there are probably more broken homes in this book than in any other book of its era).  In the negatives column, Harriet is continuously commenting on how fat people are. It’s clear she really doesn’t approve of fat people.  At one point her father teases her calling her a “fat lady.”

Sex, Nudity, Dating –   Harriet jokes that Sport is her husband.  A girl says she can’t walk around in a slip because there are no shades on her windows. Ole Golly has a boyfriend.  They get engaged.
Profanity – “dad-blamed”, “finks/finked,” “rat-finks,” “damned”, “idiot,” “tee me off,” “my God,” Harriet says that a girl will grow up to be a “Lady Hitler,”
Death, Violence and Gore – In a made up story of Harriet’s, men with guns come and rob people.  They beat someone up.  Harriet wants to write a story about a woman being run over by a truck. Harriet’s friend Janie plans to blow up the world one day. Mr. Robinson has a gun collection.  Harriet supposes that if two people she’s spying on had a baby, they might kill it.  Harriet wonders if she could get spy work on murder cases and if she’d have to carry a gun.  She asks Janie questions about slitting someone’s throat.  Janie offers that she’d poison someone instead.  Harriet suggests that Janie blow up dancing school.  Fabio is in a minor car accident.  His parents slap him.  Harriet wishes she were dead.  Harriet is concerned that her friends might drive nails through her head.  She also speculates that they want to put her head on a flagpole.  Harriet hits a girl in the face.   She pinches people. Harriet thinks pigeons can give you cancer (I do not believe this particular claim).  She trips someone causing him to fall on his face. She throws a pencil in a girl’s face. There is a fight.  Her father threatens her with a whaling, later he tells her to do something or she won’t be able to sit down for a week.  She throws a shoe at someone and plans to break someone else’s finger.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – Sport’s father has cocktails before dinner. The dean of the school buys cigarettes.  Cook has a son who drinks. Fabio smokes cigarettes. Father mixes a martini.  A man is “stoned out of his mind”.
Frightening or Intense Things – As seen above, the bullying is fairly intense.



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3 Responses to Harriet the Spy

  1. Sharon says:

    I did read this as a child, and remember liking it. Then I reread it a couple of years ago, and was absolutely shocked. I remembered Ole Golly the way I think the author intended me to think of her–idiosyncratic in her treatment of Harriet as an adult, with the brusque nature of a good Mary Poppins. But rereading it, she’s much more of a mixed bag of good advice to make Harriet a strong young woman and really unnerving coldness. Her monologue, for example, about how her mother is “eating and sleeping and waiting to die.” It’s such a bizarre book.

  2. Mrs.N says:

    So, the question is, do you think you liked it as a child because you weren’t picking up on a lot of what Fitzhugh was doing? Because I really felt like a lot of this was going to go right over kids heads.

    I spend a lot of time going to battle with kids on how well they understand what they’re reading and I think a lot of kids could report to me that they understand this book, but after reading from an adult perspective, I would really wonder if they were picking up on a lot of it.

    Do you think Fitzhugh intended Ole Golly to be an edgier Mary Poppins? Or that that’s just the likely reading of her by children.

  3. Beth says:

    As a kid I liked it because it had absolute respect for the child characters — what they did was important, what they felt was real, and nothing was too strong for them. As an adult, that’s harder to read, because we want to protect kids. As a kid, I liked that Harriet could get herself into huge trouble with her friends and then have to dig herself out, and all without learning a heartwarming lesson (I loved that she did learn that you sometimes have to lie, not tell a fib but apologize even when you are only sorry that you got caught).

    Actually, this is a book that I think kids do better at understanding than adults; as an adult it is easy to get caught up in whether Harriet is neglected or whether she is too mean or treated too badly, but to a kid who likes this kind of story, those things are peripheral (as I think the author wanted them to be) and what the characters are doing in their situations matter. I chased down the sequels, although I was more likely to reread the Sport one since it was a lot lighter in tone.

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