Louise Fitzhugh's "Harriet the Spy"
March 26, 2012 6:25 PM   Subscribe

In December 1974, there was a memorial service at St. James Episcopal Church on Madison Avenue for Louise Fitzhugh, author and illustrator of Harriet the Spy, the groundbreaking children's novel that has sold 2.5 million copies since its publication in 1964.

Harriet the Spy was a unanimous first-round selection in the School Library Journal's "100 Books that Shaped the Century".
posted by Trurl (45 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Renoroc at 6:35 PM on March 26, 2012

I remember Harriet the Spy as one of the favorites of my childhood, and had no idea there was a sequel (The Long Secret, $5.99 Kindle) actually written by Fitzhugh (there were others that weren't), so thanks for this. I'll be reading both this weekend.
posted by Huck500 at 6:36 PM on March 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Harriet the Spy was my FUCKIN' JAM! Got a flashlight on my belt and a notebook and a hoodie, YEAH!
posted by Divine_Wino at 6:39 PM on March 26, 2012 [7 favorites]

I had a friend who was applying to a university. One Of the questions was to describe a book that changed your life or some such question. She wrote about Harriet the Spy.
posted by njohnson23 at 6:47 PM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Harriet the Spy was and remains AWESOME! Loved those books. They helped my sister learn to read.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 6:52 PM on March 26, 2012

Hell yes, excellent book. Sport was great, too. 4th grade favorites.
posted by porn in the woods at 6:54 PM on March 26, 2012

It occurs to me now that Harriet the Spy was the first book that I read that I didn't fully understand. I'd probably get it if I read it now, but I distinctly remember trying to puzzle it out and not getting anywhere. Initially "Why is she doing this?" and then after Harriet's found out "well, everyone hates her. I'd hate her. Why is she trying to make up for it? How can she possibly?" I'm pretty sure that it was age-appropriate, but not for my particular mindset. Obviously I'm not going to re-read it.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:55 PM on March 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I discovered Harriet the Spy in my elementary school library. Maybe the 3rd grade. I'd never heard of it. No one ever talked about the book. I thought I was one of the few.
posted by bz at 6:57 PM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret changed my life. Because of Harriet, I started keeping a journal, and kept it for years - well past college. I have boxes of notebooks in the attic.

And, growing up in Hawaii, reading about New York was like getting a glimpse of a foreign country.
posted by rtha at 7:00 PM on March 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

When I reread Harriet the Spy for the first time as an adult, I realized just how many, let's say, memes about the world that I carried with me had come from that book.

All of her books are good, but the other one that I quite enjoyed (I read the rest in my early 20s) was Nobody's Family Is Going To Change, which is devastating.
posted by Casuistry at 7:04 PM on March 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

As a kid, I was more familiar with the Nick movie starring Rosie O'Donnell. Great book, though. Fitzhugh was part of a great realist tradition of kid lit writers that seems long past now, for the most part (though there are a few--like Laurel Snyder and Rebecca Stead--who seem poised to take up the mantle).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:08 PM on March 26, 2012

the Nick movie starring Rosie O'Donnell


Seconding Nobody's Family, which I would put far ahead of any of the Harriet sequels as one's second Fitzhugh title.
posted by Trurl at 7:14 PM on March 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I LOVED Harriet the Spy, and used to carry around a bag with a flashlight, magnifying glass, and a notebook and pen to write down "clues."

I too credit this book for getting me into journal/diary writing.
posted by Anima Mundi at 7:20 PM on March 26, 2012

I LOVE Harriet the Spy. I read it over and over and over when I was young and it affected me in ways that I can't even articulate. The theme about Harriet being ostracized and excluded really resonated with me, a very shy and sensitive child. The meanness of kids I understood completely, having, like Harriet, been on both ends of the stick. The love of an Ole Golly was something I always longed for and whether or not I had it in my life, I knew it was always there for me, in a book, and it was a real comfort. Books have always been such a solace for me, but especially so when I was young, and Harriet the Spy was one of the best of them.
posted by triggerfinger at 7:41 PM on March 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

Oh - and my favorite person on Harriet's spy route was Agatha K. Plumber - remember her? The lady who just stayed in bed all day? She seemed so decadent, rich and wasteful, lazing around all day. She was a mystery to me. Why would she stay in bed all day? Doesn't she get bored? Now, every time I spend a lazy Saturday or Sunday lying around in bed and watching movies or reading, my mind, without fail, will always wander to old Agatha and how I now can understand why exactly a person would want to do that. Love, love, love that book.
posted by triggerfinger at 7:45 PM on March 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Harriet the Spy is my go-to Halloween costume.
posted by marylynn at 7:55 PM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Harriet is a gem. It models a child doing interesting (if quirky) things driven by internal motivations. It examines the meanness that kids are capable of -- and not just in the antagonists but also in Harriet herself. And maybe most subtly, it's an introduction to the idea that there are so many lives and stories going on around us all the time, and an opportunity to explore empathy.
posted by weston at 8:08 PM on March 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Harriet the Spy changed my life, as well. The first time I went to New York I organized, with some like-minded friends, a Harriet Walking Tour through the Upper East Side, tracing all the locations mentioned in the book, figured out which townhouse must have been Harriet's, and stopping at the end for egg creams. It was fabulous.
posted by jokeefe at 8:10 PM on March 26, 2012 [8 favorites]

Ugh, apologies to Harriet for the mangled grammar.
posted by jokeefe at 8:17 PM on March 26, 2012

Once or twice every summer I pick a few fresh tomatoes from the backyard and make a tomato and mayonnaise sandwich just so I can spend a lunchtime pretending to be Harriet.
posted by BlueJae at 8:51 PM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I want to take jokeefe's tour.
posted by weston at 9:29 PM on March 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't understand why all of you started journalling after reading this. Wasn't the takeaway supposed to be that writing down what you think is foolish and will cause trouble?

/half serious. I learned the ancient greek alphabet and wrote my journal in that.
posted by jacalata at 9:31 PM on March 26, 2012

I read Harriet the Spy a few weeks ago!

Absolutely as good as its reputation.

Strangely, "Harriet the Spy" has in my mind an evil anti-twin, the chilling but utterly brilliant book "Random Acts of Senseless Violence". I think I feel this way because Lola is fairly similar in age to Harriet, doesn't live too far from where she lived, and it's all in the first person - but "Random Acts" is as dark as "Harriet" is bright (though "Harriet" isn't all sweetness and light by any means).
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:07 PM on March 26, 2012

Er, I FIRST read Harriet a few weeks ago!
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:07 PM on March 26, 2012

posted by honest knave at 10:20 PM on March 26, 2012

She also did the illustrations for Sandra Scoppetone's (with whom she was involved) Suzuki Beane.

I read somewhere that she had been working on an adult novel, but no one knows what happened to it.
posted by brujita at 10:54 PM on March 26, 2012

One of the best books ever and so unlike almost any other kids' book. For one thing, there is no straightforward plot arc - it's almost two stories if I remember right - with the part with Ole Golly and then the part after her. As mentioned above, it's amazing to have a hero who does the wrong things, and never really understands what she should do differently or why. So much of the book is just these very insightful but subtler-than-they-seem reflections on class, gender, and human nature. Truly brilliant.
posted by latkes at 11:18 PM on March 26, 2012

I also love Harriet the Spy! The Long Secret is hella weird, though.
posted by naoko at 12:33 AM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I loved that book. SKULKING AROUND, SPYING. Hell yeah.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:56 AM on March 27, 2012

A walking tour
posted by Trurl at 5:17 AM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

What I never understood about the book until making this post was how rich the Welsch family is.

A three-story townhouse on East 87th Street near Gracie Mansion - even without a river view and inconveniently far from the subway - would cost at least $5 million. [Real estate prices weren't as inflated in 1964, but still.]

The 2011-2102 tuition at the Chapin School - the model for Harriet's - is $35,100.
posted by Trurl at 5:38 AM on March 27, 2012

I read the book when I was a kid and rather liked the movie, as far as kids' movies go. It didn't seem overly saccharine. It wasn't completely faithful to the book, sure, but I think it worked on its own.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 6:58 AM on March 27, 2012

Time for my cake and milk, milk and cake!
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:18 AM on March 27, 2012

Damn, I never realized they were rich either; makes me want to re-read it and see if that changes anything. Thanks for the post.
posted by Mavri at 8:20 AM on March 27, 2012

They were able to afford tomatoes out of seaason :-).
posted by brujita at 8:31 AM on March 27, 2012

They had a nanny! That alone always seemed weird to me.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:38 AM on March 27, 2012

I didn't quite get that they were rich either until later; it shows how skillful Fitzhugh was, making Harriet such a unique character. But after reading Sport (which I really like for some reason), I thought, wow, ya think Fitzhugh had issues about her childhood and growing up rich? Thanks so much for this post.
posted by Melismata at 10:04 AM on March 27, 2012

Of course they were rich-- and Harriet wonders about it too, comparing the smells of her home environment with Sport's, and wondering "what makes people poor or rich"?

I want to take jokeefe's tour.

My friend Faith's Harriet the Spy: the Unauthorized Biography, which includes scans of the notebooks girls started keeping after reading the book (mine is in there, of course). Here's my FB gallery of a few photos from the walking tour. I've changed the settings to "public", but I think you might still have to be logged in to see it, more's the pity.
posted by jokeefe at 10:12 AM on March 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

As mentioned above, it's amazing to have a hero who does the wrong things, and never really understands what she should do differently or why.

Harriet the Spy is about how to be a writer, and what a writer owes to herself and her art, and how to balance that with the people in her life; it's about her duty to the truth and her duty to treat others with respect (not just as subject matter) despite their comic failings. (Those who Harriet spies on go through similar arcs to hers, from comedy to tragedy to resolution, such as Harrison Wither's loss of all his cats and his eventual adoption of a new kitten.) Harriet's issue is that she uses her insights and knowledge to hurt others once she has experienced her first real hurt, Ole Golly's abandonment; how she resolves that is her first real test of being both a writer and a compassionate human being. Remember what Ole Golly said, that the purpose of writing is "to put love into the world". The problem is how to do that and speak the truth, as well.
posted by jokeefe at 10:43 AM on March 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

which includes scans of the notebooks girls started keeping after reading the book

More grammar fail-- obviously those aren't all of them.
posted by jokeefe at 10:44 AM on March 27, 2012

You're a smart cookie jokeefe.
posted by latkes at 11:13 AM on March 27, 2012

There is a book by Virginia Wolf on Louise Fitzhugh. It is part-biography, part-analysis of LF's life, her wealthy family, her drive to create visual art (which provoked a break with her family) and her lesbianism. It is very hard to find, but very worthwhile.
posted by Riverine at 12:31 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh wow jokeefe, what a beautiful and profound comment. Well said.

I know someone, who went to Chapin School, the model for Harriet's school in the book, and really loved Harriet the Spy. It was a sort of guidebook for her in the late 1960's, when she was ten years old. She kept spy notebooks filled with radically honest details of her life and of the adults around her, sometimes Scotch taping used amyl nitrates, for example, into the notebooks.

The notebooks she wrote were used, decades later, in a lawsuit against a couple of those same adults. Harriet the Spy might have saved that little girl's sanity, as a way to comprehend and navigate the world at that time.

The story about a girl's diary being exposed to the wrong people that helped me the most to navigate the world of dysfunctional, narcissistic adults and the importance of loving adults, was The World of Henry Orient, a movie, not a book.

Another honest book about dysfunctional adults, psychological conflicts and dark sides, written for teens is really worth reading at any age. It's by Theodora Keogh, called “Meg: The Secret Life of an Awakening Girl.”.
posted by nickyskye at 8:11 PM on March 27, 2012

What I never understood about the book until making this post was how rich the Welsch family is.

I never read the book as a child. But I read it to my kids and it's very clear that the Welsch's are rich. They have a nanny! And a cook! The mom and dad spend all their time at work or at "functions". That's code for rich, especially in the 60s. And of course the private school.

I don't think it really changes the book much, though. All Harriet's friends go to the same school, so there's little to no class conflict or issues. Although now that I think about it Harriet visits her nanny's mother at one point and she's poor, IIRC. But that's right at the beginning of the book and isn't really touched on again. It was more a context for setting up the nanny as a mother-figure.
posted by DU at 5:30 AM on April 2, 2012

Yeah, I kind of think class conflict is one of the major themes. Ole Golly is like Harriet's real parent but her connection to Harriet is totally tenuous because she's a servant.
posted by latkes at 7:23 AM on April 2, 2012

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