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.