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Harriet the Spy, Queer Hero
March 30, 2013 9:15 AM   Subscribe

"Reading Harriet the Spy today as an adult, I find a queer subtext throughout. Not only is Harriet the quintessential baby butch, but her best friends, Sport and Janie, run exactly contrary to gender stereotypes. Sport acts as the homemaker and nurturing caretaker of his novelist father, while Janie the scientist plans to blow up the world one day. It was as if Fitzhugh was telling us kids back in the sixties that you didn’t have to play by society’s rules, the first lesson a queer kid has to learn in order to be happy."
posted by mokin (74 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
I wanted to be Harriet when I was a kid. I started keeping a journal because of Harriet.

I was definitely a baby butch, and grew up to be a grown-up lesbian.

I really need to re-read Harriet the Spy (and The Long Secret). And now I will go read the link.
posted by rtha at 9:21 AM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I had no idea about the queer text, but I can tell you Harriet was a great role model for this weird kid about ten years later.
posted by Michael Roberts at 9:28 AM on March 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


It was as if Fitzhugh was telling us kids back in the sixties that you didn’t have to play by society’s rules, the first lesson a queer kid has to learn in order to be happy."

No doubt. But in the 60s, it wasn't just queer kids who were taking up that lesson. It was pretty much everybody with half a soul and brain, in America anyway. I mean, just being male of a certain age meant you were Vietnam fodder ... unless you were one of John Fogerty's Fortunate Sons.
posted by philip-random at 9:31 AM on March 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


I loved Harriet the Spy. Even now, the name reminds me instantly of the phrase "the boy with the purple socks." I'm really interested to know that Fitzhugh had a lesbian background. Although I don't remember reading her other books as a kid, I'm tempted to give them a try now.

Even so, I'm not quite happy with an explicitly queer reading of these characters just because they are non-gender-conforming. Smart technical girl, kindly caring boy -- do these have to be baby-gay archetypes? Isn't that as much as agreeing with the kids on the playground who yell "dyke" and "faggot"?

(A side note: I never watched the movie, because I wasn't a kid when it came out, plus I thought it should have been a period piece and Golly was whitewashed by casting Rosie O'Donnell. Is it any good?)
posted by Countess Elena at 9:34 AM on March 30, 2013 [49 favorites]


I never read Harriet the Spy. I did read The Great Brain, but failed to become a genius Utahn.
posted by jonmc at 9:35 AM on March 30, 2013 [9 favorites]


Even so, I'm not quite happy with an explicitly queer reading of these characters just because they are non-gender-conforming.

Smart technical girl, kindly caring boy -- do these have to be baby-gay archetypes?

Isn't that as much as agreeing with the kids on the playground who yell "dyke" and "faggot"?


This.
posted by infini at 9:36 AM on March 30, 2013 [22 favorites]


Smart technical girl, kindly caring boy -- do these have to be baby-gay archetypes?

Yes and no, I think. I mean, look at when the books were written; and Fitzhugh herself was a non-conforming person in all kinds of ways. I don't think the characters can only be read a queer, but it is definitely one of the ways they can be read. Whether or not kids who yell "faggot" on the playground are in fact sometimes right doesn't seem all that relevant.
posted by rtha at 9:37 AM on March 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


And Tom Sawyer was gay. As are Ernie and Bert

I fully appreciate and understand the need to have role models and heroes as a kid no matter what orientation we end up as as adults, but tbh I am tired of the constant attempt to re-imagine children's books/media that explicitly avoid any gendered stereotypes as being one thing or another. In a real way that just feeds into our system as is. Something has to be either queer or straight. It can't be just is. Things has to be explicit, or subtext shaped bent to the desires of the reader. Leaving no room for simple engagement.
Which I guess is a criticism of literary criticism in general. In college (back at the dawn of time) I found literary criticism both really fun and about 7/10ths absolute bullshit.

What makes HtS great is the actions and emotions, which are things (obv) that women and men, girls or boys can engage in perfectly naturally regardless of any gender role.
posted by edgeways at 9:48 AM on March 30, 2013 [11 favorites]


edgeways: "And Tom Sawyer was gay. As are Ernie and Bert

I fully appreciate and understand the need to have role models and heroes as a kid no matter what orientation we end up as as adults, but tbh I am tired of the constant attempt to re-imagine children's books/media that explicitly avoid any gendered stereotypes as being one thing or another. In a real way that just feeds into our system as is. Something has to be either queer or straight. It can't be just is. Things has to be explicit, or subtext shaped bent to the desires of the reader. Leaving no room for simple engagement.
Which I guess is a criticism of literary criticism in general. In college (back at the dawn of time) I found literary criticism both really fun and about 7/10ths absolute bullshit.

What makes HtS great is the actions and emotions, which are things (obv) that women and men, girls or boys can engage in perfectly naturally regardless of any gender role.
"

I mean, it seems pretty clear from reading the essay that the author is talking about how she personally engaged with the novel as a queer youth and now as an adult. She says "I find a queer subtext," not "there's a queer subtext and if you don't see it you're wrong."

I guess I don't exactly understand what your problem is with this essay because the thing you're complaining about doesn't seem to be what the writer is doing here.
posted by dismas at 9:57 AM on March 30, 2013 [9 favorites]


Straight guy reporting in. Excellent book.
posted by colie at 10:00 AM on March 30, 2013


I think it's possible--and indeed, it seems to me that's what the author's intent is here--to acknowledge that a story can be read in a way that particularly resonates with the experience of being queer, and to celebrate that, without in any way taking away from other interpretations that have resonance for others, or from the story itself.
posted by beryllium at 10:02 AM on March 30, 2013 [11 favorites]


To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings.’ ~ Susan Sontag
posted by Fizz at 10:05 AM on March 30, 2013 [17 favorites]


Probably the first book I read with gay characters was Dick Francis's Reflex. Actually, just about every Dick Francis book has a random gay character somewhere (or the main character is mistakenly presumed to be gay by someone), but it's one of few with characters who are clearly identified as gay (well, the word 'gay' is never actually used, but there are two couples). Of these two couples, one features a guy whose mother no longer speaks to him and has written him out of her will after finding out he's gay. The other couple break up and of them kills themselves as a result of the break up. The main character lived with this couple as a kid and they were his best parental figures. But at least twice has to 'reassure' someone that they neither abused him nor attempted to recruit him. So it's this weird mix of stuff you wouldn't expect from a book published in 1980 and and, well, everything you'd expect from a book published in 1980.

This is all kind of tangential. But Horning's point is that she got to read Harriet the Spy and read a book about someone like her where no one's mother stopped speaking to them (at least I don't think so--I read it at least 15 years ago) and no one committed suicide. It doesn't really matter that it's not explicitly queer.
posted by hoyland at 10:15 AM on March 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Even so, I'm not quite happy with an explicitly queer reading of these characters just because they are non-gender-conforming. Smart technical girl, kindly caring boy -- do these have to be baby-gay archetypes? Isn't that as much as agreeing with the kids on the playground who yell "dyke" and "faggot"?

I don't see this as an explicitly queer reading of the characters, especially in the case of Harriet's friends. The author is saying their non-conforming to gender roles can be comforting and inspiring to queer kids, which is entirely different.
posted by mokin at 10:16 AM on March 30, 2013 [9 favorites]


I loved Harriet The Spy! My younger sister turned me on to the series, shortly after she really began to read. She and I happen to be straight. We did not know and would not have given a damn about any LGBT subtext.
When we were hitting the teen years, we lived in North Beach, an easy walk to Grant Avenue which was then the Gay Neighborhood.
It was a sort of Baby Haight Ashbury. We were on the eve of the full-blown 60s, free-range kids who went all over town.
When the situation got tense, with hot and cold running Nationa Guard, we lost the freedom to roam.
Shortly after that our family packed up and did the whole 'Let's Move Out To The Country!' 'Where it's SAFE!'
Harriet was cool. Thanks for reminding me of her. Gotta recommend them to my grandkids. They can read it on their Kindles.

I absolutely L<3 ed Janie! The pictures of her in the book were great!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 10:17 AM on March 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


I never read Harriet the Spy so I looked it up on Wikipedia... is this an accurate plot summary?
Because it strikes as not baby butch but baby Stasi:

Harriet carefully observes others and writes her thoughts down in a notebook as practice for her future career. She dedicates her life to her future career. She follows an afternoon "spy route" during which she clandestinely observes her classmates, friends, and people who reside in her neighborhood.
...
Later at school, during a game of tag, Harriet loses her notebook. Her classmates find it and are appalled at her brutally honest documentation of her opinions of them. For example, in her notebook she compares Sport to a "little old woman" for his continual worrying about his father. The students form a "Spy Catcher Club" in which they think up ways to make Harriet's life miserable, such as stealing her lunch, passing nasty notes about her in class, and spilling ink on her.
Harriet regularly spies on them through a back fence and concocts vengeful ways to punish them. She realizes the consequences of the mean things she wrote, and though she is hurt and lonely, she still thinks up special punishments for each member of the club. After getting into trouble for some of her plans, Harriet tries to resume her friendship with Sport and Janie as if nothing had ever happened, but they both reject her. Harriet spends all her time in class writing in her notebook as a part of her plan to punish the Spy Catcher Club. As a result of never doing her schoolwork, her grades suffer. This leads Harriet's parents to confiscate her notebook. Hearing of Harriet's troubles, Ole Golly writes to her, telling her that if anyone ever reads her notebook, "you 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."

posted by Bwithh at 10:17 AM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, and a related Reflex anecdote about how we read different things into books. I've met one other person who reads Dick Francis (who isn't my grandad). She is also a great fan of Reflex. We were describing our favourite Dick Francis books and it took a while to realise we were talking about the same book. I said "that one with the gay photographers" and she said "that one with the sort-of-but-not-actually incest". We'd each all but totally forgotten the plot point the other found most memorable.
posted by hoyland at 10:18 AM on March 30, 2013


Having also read HtS recently as an adult, there is absolutely nothing "butch" about her. She's just a girl who happens to like things other than flowers and unicorns. That's fine for everyone.
posted by DU at 10:20 AM on March 30, 2013


Bwithh, it is morally complex for a children's novel, which is part of what makes it a great book. Like most plot summaries, what you posted is both accurate and pretty useless as a means of forming opinions about the book.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:21 AM on March 30, 2013 [11 favorites]


The essay really reminded me of what it was like reading Harriet the Spy as a girl during a time when some girls were still forced to wear dresses to school every day whether they wanted to or not (this actually changed during the years I was in elementary school, but I have friends with very painful memories about being forced into dresses). I grew up to be a lesbian, and in a time when there were no representations of lesbians in books or on TV, and certainly no out lesbians among the people we knew in real life, many of us clung to the occasional representation like Harriet and her friends. Ask a lesbian of a certain age (say, approaching 50, my age now) about Buddy from the TV show Family, or Jo from the Facts of Life. These characters were what we had. I don't think you need to say that Harriet was a lesbian to recognize that she had a special resonance for girls who were queer, whether they knew it explicitly at the time or not. I am sure that this book spoke powerfully to other kids as well, but it spoke powerfully to me, and girls like me, in a particular way, and Harriet's spy outfit, Sport's cooking, Janie's mad-scientist aspirations, and yes, the purple socks, were a part of that.

I think Harriet was also likely to be a powerful character for kids who aspired to be writers; that was part of it for me, as well. How many kids started carrying notebooks around after readintg this book, I wonder? She's not a one-dimentional character, which is part of what's so great about her. She's complicated and not entirely admirable. But the fact that there is much more in the book than just a queer subtext that spoke to queer kids of that era doesn't mean that the queer subtext isn't there, or that seeing it or writing about is somehow unworthy of the book.
posted by not that girl at 10:21 AM on March 30, 2013 [17 favorites]


I never read this as a kid, and I fancy reading it now. In the spirit of impatience, can anyone point me at a download, available in the UK, that I can read on my iPhone (with Kindle app)? I've found a pdf, but only of the first chapter. It's not on the Kindle store. Would happily pay, but can't find it anywhere.
posted by penguin pie at 10:23 AM on March 30, 2013


Also, I don't think it's too much of a stretch to think that the queer subtext may have been deliberate on Fitzhugh's part. She wrote, but did not publish, a novel about two girls falling in love. The manuscript has been lost.

Here is an NPR story about Harriet the Spy that talks more about the book and how it changed children's literature.
posted by not that girl at 10:25 AM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Harriett definitely has an evil streak; it comes out more in The Long Secret, as I recall. I liked The Long Secret better, as a kid.
posted by BibiRose at 10:26 AM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I need to re-read HtS because the only thing I remember of it at all is that it inspired me to create my own neighborhood spy route at age 11ish, though I didn't watch people or note anything, just found a way to go up one street and down another via backyards and fences.

Adult re-readings of childhood faves can be weird, though. When I re-read my beloved The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, the overt "boys only" crap really stung. And yes, I know it's like that largely because Cameron wrote it for her son, but still, I love it a little less now.
posted by FelliniBlank at 10:29 AM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Harriet the Spy was one of my favorite books growing up, mostly because Harriet was an outsider who loved to write. I felt like both, and I understood her slightly outer-space feeling of having to observe other humans to see what made them tick.
posted by xingcat at 10:37 AM on March 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Even so, I'm not quite happy with an explicitly queer reading of these characters just because they are non-gender-conforming. Smart technical girl, kindly caring boy -- do these have to be baby-gay archetypes? Isn't that as much as agreeing with the kids on the playground who yell "dyke" and "faggot"
I think there is an ambiguity here around the way the author uses the word "queer," which if interpreted a different way may may make this less troublesome than it seems. Doesn't the word queer, as popularly used in LGBTQ-friendly circles, include non-gender-conforming people by definition? Lots of heterosexual people proudly take up the word "queer" to reflect their nonconformity, or their opposition to the norms regardless of whether they conform to them or not personally. Now I understand some people might object to calling someone "queer" when the person hasn't decided to do so themselves, but the way I read it, the author of the piece is using queer in a very charitable sense (and as a personal interpretation as pointed out by others upthread).

On the other hand, her characterization of Harriet as "Baby Butch" might support your critique given my understanding of how the word butch is used by gay women, but even that isn't necessarily a prejudgment of her sexuality, just a description of Harriet's gender performance, which I suppose is objectively not stereotypically feminine.
posted by Pfardentrott at 10:43 AM on March 30, 2013


To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings.’ ~ Susan Sontag

Out of context, this makes it look like Sontag was against any and all "interpretation" by readers (or viewers of art). But of course, she was a critic, and did a lot of interpreting herself. It's been a million years since I read this essay, but a glance at Wikipedia reminds me that it was written at a time and in reaction to a specific kind of art criticism. Just as one should take care in not over-interpreting, one should also take care to not de-contextualize completely.
posted by rtha at 10:59 AM on March 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


Oh, and Bwithh - yes, it is both accurate, and not. Read the book! It's a very quick read.
posted by rtha at 11:00 AM on March 30, 2013


Even so, I'm not quite happy with an explicitly queer reading of these characters just because they are non-gender-conforming. Smart technical girl, kindly caring boy -- do these have to be baby-gay archetypes? Isn't that as much as agreeing with the kids on the playground who yell "dyke" and "faggot"

Yeah, what with the uncounted multitudes of well rounded, non-stereotypical gay or lesbian characters in 19060ties young adult fiction, let's not also claim the more ambiguous ones for the queer camp, shall we?
posted by MartinWisse at 11:09 AM on March 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


Countess Elena, Fitzhugh drew the illustrations for Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret and Ole Golly isn't black.
posted by brujita at 11:48 AM on March 30, 2013


Countess Elena: I liked the film a lot. Saw it twice on the big screen, bought the soundtrack. I will note that it's... kinder and gentler than the book, with the rough edges sanded away. I like how that worked out, but I can see how others might not go for it.
posted by Shmuel510 at 11:50 AM on March 30, 2013


"... you didn’t have to play by society’s rules, the first lesson a queer any kid has to learn in order to be happy."

FTFY.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 11:51 AM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


eponyprettycool
posted by infini at 12:21 PM on March 30, 2013


As a straight male, I guess the book wasn't written for me, because I remember as a kid doing the equivalent of throwing it against the wall--I was a voracious reader, and I could appreciate some of the individual bits in it (such as the couple that pretended to be vivacious when visitors came, but fell into a numb silence when they were alone with each other), but I couldn't get past how obnoxious Harriet seemed. I guess I'm with Bwithh on that.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:28 PM on March 30, 2013


On a slightly different note -- was I the only reader who assumed that Ramona and Beezus Quimby were black?
posted by Afroblanco at 12:34 PM on March 30, 2013


I was a pretty obnoxious kid myself. Maybe that's why I liked Harriet the Spy - she was an obnoxious kid, and she suffered the consequences, and yet she was still loved and valued. I always liked stories with complex, human characters.
posted by muddgirl at 12:35 PM on March 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


I never read the book but do remember enjoying the film (when it came out - I don't know if it stands up to rewatching). However I was slightly scandalized to learn that it has since been remade(?) as BLOG WARS.
posted by Gordafarin at 12:36 PM on March 30, 2013


On a slightly different note -- was I the only reader who assumed that Ramona and Beezus Quimby were black?

Yes. Not only were they from 1950s Oregon, but they look pretty damned white in the illustrations.

If you like Louise Fitzhugh, you should pick up Dear Genius, the letters of her (also gay) editor, Ursula Nordstrom. It's brilliant. She was brilliant. She also published the first gay YA novel, I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip, which is just heartbreaking and awesome, even today.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:43 PM on March 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


This is a little OT but the Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley have some faint HtS echoes for me. Different style, setting, etc but I've been enjoying them lately.
posted by edgeways at 12:44 PM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I fully appreciate and understand the need to have role models and heroes as a kid no matter what orientation we end up as as adults, but tbh I am tired of the constant attempt to re-imagine children's books/media that explicitly avoid any gendered stereotypes as being one thing or another. In a real way that just feeds into our system as is. Something has to be either queer or straight. It can't be just is. Things has to be explicit, or subtext shaped bent to the desires of the reader. Leaving no room for simple engagement.

Which I guess is a criticism of literary criticism in general. In college (back at the dawn of time) I found literary criticism both really fun and about 7/10ths absolute bullshit.


Agreed.

This kind of literary thinking...or creative reinterpretation...or whatever it is...allows people to say virtually anything about any "text." Such quasi-interpretation straddles the line between "here's a really good way to think about what this means" and "Here's what it made me think of." If one does the former thing, then one has to test one's hypotheses against the totality of what's written, and sometimes reject them. But in successful cases, you get to conclude "this may be pretty much what it means." In the latter activity, you just report on whatever you thought when you read it. You almost never have to admit you were wrong--because there's almost nothing to be wrong about--but your interpretation carries no rational weight, since whatever anybody thinks when they read something is, well, what they think. The confused project is the project that doesn't clearly do either of these things. Such readings kind of fee-associate on cherry-picked evidence, suggesting that they're building a rationally compelling case for an objective interpretation...but always leaving it open that it might be just an autobiographical report of what the critic happened, personally, to think about when reading. (And you don't have to have nefarious motives in order to be unclear about what it is that you're trying to do.)

And, when someone is really, really interested in one kind of question--like, say, sexual identity--then a project that allows one wide latitude with respect to interpretations...well, it ends up being kind of a Roschach test.

Anyway, I also agree that, though it's good to let kids know that it's ok to have all kind of non-standard identities, including sexual ones, it's also bad to try to make everything about that. "Hey, you can be different without it having any implications for your sexuality" is a good message, too. Though once you've made so much of it about sex and sexual identity, no amount of saying "it doesn't have to be about that" can keep people from wondering whether it might actually all be about that...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 12:44 PM on March 30, 2013


What stunned me about "Harriet" as a kid was that Harriet wasn't completely likable. It made me think about how my actions might have consequences. That's pretty hard when you're a kid.
posted by acrasis at 12:46 PM on March 30, 2013 [13 favorites]


In fact, here's Nordstrom on Harriet's "obnoxiousness":
I still wonder what put you off so about Harriet the Spy. Was it the fact that she spied that disturbed you? I think most of us have forgotten the awful things we did or wanted to do when we were 10 or 11 or 12. I was brought up with the most stern drilling of what was right and wrong, kind or mean, thoughtful or inconsiderate, etc. etc., and never tell a lie no matter what. And to this day I would love to read other people's mail and listen ot their telephone conversations if it were not for this hideous conscience, well--mustn't get into one of those long wandering letters. But you are all for vigor in children's books and Harriet seems to have such vigor and life. ?????
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:46 PM on March 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Fitzhugh died tragically young (at 46) of a brain aneurysm-- and speaking of tragedies:
Another young adult manuscript, Amelia, concerned two girls falling in love. This manuscript was not published and was later lost.[1]
So I don't think it's much of a reach to impute a queer subtext to HtS.
posted by jamjam at 12:47 PM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


The soundtrack for the film contains the insanely catchy "The Secretive Life," by Jill Sobule. Jill Sobule wrote "I Kissed a Girl."

COINCIDENCE? O^_o?
posted by adipocere at 12:53 PM on March 30, 2013


Since Fitzhugh herself was queer, it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that the queer subtext in her books is there because she put it there on purpose. In this instance, at least, it seems equally irrational to me to deny that this can be a valid interpretation. We're not talking about 'shipping Snape and Voldemort here. We're talking about a child character written by an adult woman who was also a lesbian, or at least bisexual, who understood what it was to be non-conforming in a variety of ways (because she was), and who created characters who shared or reflected her own traits and perspective.
posted by rtha at 1:03 PM on March 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


And not only that, we're talking about a lesbian author who wrote a YA manuscript about two girls who fell in love that was not published-- and I would guess could not be published in the '60s (the website linked in the Wikipedia article reference is timing out for me right now)-- and subsequently "lost."

I find it amazing and rather telling that anyone would feel as deep a need to deny the possibility of a queer subtext here as you apparently do, adipocere-- what exactly are you so afraid of?
posted by jamjam at 1:29 PM on March 30, 2013


I find it amazing and rather telling that anyone would feel as deep a need to deny the possibility of a queer subtext here as you apparently do, adipocere

Huh? I just see a comment about a Jill Sobule song. Was something deleted or edited or something here?
posted by box at 1:34 PM on March 30, 2013


Countess Elena, Fitzhugh drew the illustrations for Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret and Ole Golly isn't black.

I have a vague memory of Ole Golly being described in the book as Native American - did I make that up?
posted by naoko at 1:59 PM on March 30, 2013


and I would guess could not be published in the '60s (the website linked in the Wikipedia article reference is timing out for me right now)

Again, Fitzhugh's queer editor published the first queer YA novel in 1969. It's genuinely possible that it really was lost, not "lost."
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:28 PM on March 30, 2013


Naoko, OG is described as looking like "a hawk-nosed Indian" when she blushes as she speaks to her BF.
posted by brujita at 2:36 PM on March 30, 2013


Countess Elena, Fitzhugh drew the illustrations for Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret and Ole Golly isn't black.

Well, I'll be. I honestly don't know why I was so certain of that when I was a kid.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:38 PM on March 30, 2013


I read Reflex shortly after it was out in paperback and, whoah, I think I need to read it again. And HtS too.
posted by K.P. at 2:49 PM on March 30, 2013


She was involved with Sandra Scoppetone and illustrated the long out of print Suzuki Beane.
posted by brujita at 3:12 PM on March 30, 2013


I fully appreciate and understand the need to have role models and heroes as a kid no matter what orientation we end up as as adults, but tbh I am tired of the constant attempt to re-imagine children's books/media that explicitly avoid any gendered stereotypes as being one thing or another. In a real way that just feeds into our system as is. Something has to be either queer or straight. It can't be just is. Things has to be explicit, or subtext shaped bent to the desires of the reader. Leaving no room for simple engagement.

a) "Queer" is not the opposite of "straight."
b) Due respect, but people with privilege have put a lot of time into trying to keep anyone else from seeing themselves reflected in the world. This doesn't seem real different to me.
posted by liketitanic at 3:54 PM on March 30, 2013 [10 favorites]


My dating litmus test always used to be whether or not dates adored (or at least appreciated) "Confederacy of Dunces" until I met my fiance and when I asked his favorite book he replied, "Harriet the Spy."

Now that's a keeper.
posted by kinetic at 4:42 PM on March 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


Naoko, OG is described as looking like "a hawk-nosed Indian" when she blushes as she speaks to her BF.

Ah. Well that is not quite what I had remembered, oops.
posted by naoko at 6:02 PM on March 30, 2013


If you didn't read this book, as the author of the linked piece did (and as I did as well) as a child contemporary with its publication, you may not quite understand just how affirming Harriet was in all sorts of ways: not just non-gender conforming, though that's a powerful part of it. Harriet has a mind. She's going to be a writer. She's an active agent in her life. Believe me, in all the cultural noise of childhood back in 1968, you can have no idea how explosive this book was for weird, smart girls. Our teacher had to get special permission from the principal in order to read it to us, and I've mentally blessed her many times since. When people comment about how obnoxious they find Harriet--and I have to say, really?-- all I can think is that Harriet was a real girl to me, a friend, the first person I had ever encountered in literature who was like me and who, I felt, shared a worldview with me. She's not perfect: she doesn't have to be. At the end of the book, she must accept Ole Golly's guidance for how to live in the world, and write about it, and still fulfill the obligations of friendship. It's a complicated lesson, but well worth knowing.

Of course there's a queer subtext. There's subtext for anyone who is "different" or who has non-mainstream ambitions. That's a whole lot of people, of course, but in elementary school in an overwhelmingly white suburb in Canada in the 1960s, it was a message that those of who were attuned to or desperately looking for needed to hear.
posted by jokeefe at 6:48 PM on March 30, 2013 [10 favorites]


and I would guess could not be published in the '60s (the website linked in the Wikipedia article reference is timing out for me right now)

Again, Fitzhugh's queer editor published the first queer YA novel in 1969. It's genuinely possible that it really was lost, not "lost."
posted by PhoBWanKenobi


How is it that "Fitzhugh's queer editor" Ursula Nordstrom, published I'll Get There. It Better be Worth the Trip when she was publisher at Harper & Row then and for years before and after, and it was published by Dell, PhoBWanKenobi?
Nordstrom began at Harper & Row in 1936 and was promoted to editor in chief of the Department of Books for Boys and Girls in 1940. In 1960 she became Harper's first female vice president. She stepped down as publisher in 1973, but continued on as senior editor with her own imprint, Ursula Nordstrom Books, until 1979.[3]
And aside from that, I'll Get There. It Better be Worth the Trip is about boys.

Lesbianism was a whole other order of forbidden, back then.

And by the way, "the boy with the purple socks" could well have been a reference to homosexuality, given the connotations of mauve.
posted by jamjam at 7:16 PM on March 30, 2013


How is it that "Fitzhugh's queer editor" Ursula Nordstrom, published I'll Get There. It Better be Worth the Trip when she was publisher at Harper & Row then and for years before and after, and it was published by Dell, PhoBWanKenobi?

The wikipedia article is wrong. I've read Nordstrom's editorial letter in the aforementioned collection; she was cited as his editor in the Flux reprinting several years ago; you can find historical sources for the novel's first printing with Harper & Row.

And again, Nordstrom was a lesbian, herself.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:53 PM on March 30, 2013


I cherish this bio I read of Fitzhugh, by Virginia Wolf, which explicates the class and sexuality issues in Fitzhugh's life (she was lesbian, and a painter who rebelled against her upper-class upbringing).
posted by Riverine at 7:58 PM on March 30, 2013


And again, Nordstrom was a lesbian, herself.

Which could well have rendered her more inclined, but less able to publish a lesbian-themed YA than a straight person in her position might have been.
posted by jamjam at 8:05 PM on March 30, 2013


I appreciate that you're really attached to this theory, but the truth is that Nordstrom was an unusual early defender of children's lit with gay themes (you can see this in the lengths to which she tried to prep the world for Donovan's work). You could just as easily argue the same about Fitzhugh--that she stood to lose too much personally by publishing the novel and so wasn't inclined to--but I wouldn't feel comfortable projecting such an argument on this significant (and dead) figure in queer kid lit any more than I would some sort of model of self-hating lesbianism on Nordstrom.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:10 PM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I feel nothing but admiration for Fitzhugh and Nordstrom, PhoBWanKenobi-- as I presume you do as well-- but that doesn't lead me to make what I see as your mistake of seeing Nordstrom as a free agent who could follow her bliss as a vice-president of Harper & Row.

If she was, why did she leave H & R to establish and run her own small imprint?

Surely it would have been better for her authors to be published by such a much larger house as Harper & Row, and the fact that she left there but continued to publish suggests strongly that she was frustrated by restrictions under which she had to operate there.

And I think it would be foolish to conclude that resistance to queer-themed books at H & R could have played no role in her decision to establish her own imprint without first taking a close look at her catalog.
posted by jamjam at 8:32 PM on March 30, 2013


Harriet isn't big in Britain -- I read it for the first time recently as an adult in the US.

The could-be-read-as-queer otherness is definitely there, but there's also another vibe which came across: Harriet's kinda Aspergers-ey. She's into routine and habit -- tomato sandwiches -- and her interest in people is more mechanistic than empathetic. She struggles to understand why people do illogical things. The lesson she learns by the end of the book is that to pass in the normal world she's going to have to at least fake empathy.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 8:50 PM on March 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


And I think it would be foolish to conclude that resistance to queer-themed books at H & R could have played no role in her decision to establish her own imprint without first taking a close look at her catalog.

Harper & Row, who published the lesbian-themed Happy Endings are All Alike in 1978?

It's pretty common for senior editors to eventually move on to heading their own imprints, even today. I wouldn't read it as necessarily a criticism of H & R (who she was working with, anyway, even as head of her own imprint) at all. Which isn't to say that she, or Fitzhugh, or any other queer figure in publishing didn't face resistance or homophobia--just to say that you're making a lot of projections and assumptions and assigning homophobic intent to figures in publishing who, for their time, were actually completely trailblazing. Without evidence, to boot.

I mean, I don't know. Maybe Amelia was stolen by aliens. We don't have evidence that it wasn't.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:22 PM on March 30, 2013


Man, remember back when there were more than like three Big New York publishers and they were owned by more than two multinationals? /sigh
posted by rtha at 9:47 PM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


tbh I am tired of the constant attempt to re-imagine children's books/media that explicitly avoid any gendered stereotypes as being one thing or another.

There's no re-imagining happening here. This reflects how the writer of the essay imagined Harriet at the time of her first reading, her first engagement with the book. She spends most of the essay talking about how Harriet freed her and allowed her to engage with the queer parts of herself through her cross-dressing.

And that's the catch, isn't it? There's this notion that queer kids can't possibly be able to pick these subtexts up, and that they must be applied later by adults as default. That just isn't so. Kids absorb the lot. They may miss the wider socio-cultural implications of purple socks, but the understand that there is something secretly special about an otherwise bland and uninteresting child.

By clicking our tongues and claiming it's crude for these figures to be appropriated by queer adults you're missing the part where those adults probably did it while they were children.

See also: Ariel as a trans fairy tale.
posted by Jilder at 1:28 AM on March 31, 2013 [6 favorites]


Over 40 years later, tomato sandwiches are my comfort food.
posted by kinetic at 6:28 AM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Are tomato sandwiches supposed to be weird? 'Cause once tomatoes start ripening in the garden I eat them all the time.
posted by Mitheral at 11:08 AM on March 31, 2013


So excited! I just found a vintage copy of HtS while cleaning out my 9yo's bookshelf. Now I can test why I didn't particularly like HtS but found it memorable.

I don't think it was the clothes issues, as I grew up in the window in the 70s when girls and boys dressed similarly (after "women's lib" and before princess infatuation). And I played almost exclusively with boys for several years.

I re-read after law school and exposure to NYC, and thought it was maybe city/suburban and class issues. I didn't know anyone who could walk places, and got the sense they went to a private school instead of public. And only one kid I knew had a babysitter instead of a stay at home mom, so I totally didn't get the Ole Golly love as a kid. It was mystifying in a story that wasn't "historical."

After reading this discussion, I think it's the fact that Harriet actions raised uncomfortable social situations that made me uncomfortable.

Can't wait to re-read and find out!
posted by Measured Out my Life in Coffeespoons at 11:20 AM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


I LOVED Harriet the Spy. She was smart, imaginative, observant, brave, had so much freedom of travel, and access to so many fascinating sights. It blew my 8 year old mind that she would be able to go off on her own and do all these things herself.

I think The Long Secret left a greater impression on me -- when the Preacher tells Jessie Mae and Harriet that religion is just a tool, a thing that should be useful, and is not universally appropriate for everyone, well, that completely blew my young Catholic-schooled mind. Plus it contains the most truthful description of the onset of menstruation that I've ever read.
posted by emeiji at 12:00 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


Are tomato sandwiches supposed to be weird? 'Cause once tomatoes start ripening in the garden I eat them all the time.

I think for kids, tomato sandwiches are definitely supposed to be eccentric. Harriet's OCD-like insistence on eating the same unusual sandwich every day was a lovely detail of her oddness and a nice point of her need for order and stability, I always thought.

And tomatoes sandwiches are super yum, oh yeah.
posted by kinetic at 6:06 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Due respect, but people with privilege have put a lot of time into trying to keep anyone else from seeing themselves reflected in the world. This doesn't seem real different to me.

Word.

Leaving no room for simple engagement.

For a queer person, seeing queer resonances in an artwork is simple. Simple, straightforward engagement. It is their life, a facet of their direct subjectivity and experience. Being a straight, white male is not "simpler" in this regard.
posted by stoneandstar at 8:26 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


And that's the catch, isn't it? There's this notion that queer kids can't possibly be able to pick these subtexts up, and that they must be applied later by adults as default. That just isn't so. Kids absorb the lot. They may miss the wider socio-cultural implications of purple socks, but the understand that there is something secretly special about an otherwise bland and uninteresting child.

By clicking our tongues and claiming it's crude for these figures to be appropriated by queer adults you're missing the part where those adults probably did it while they were children.


So powerfully true I actually got tears in my eyes. Those first impressions are so powerful and instrumental to a child's developing identity.
posted by stoneandstar at 8:29 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


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