Harriet the Spy

I’ve been tagged! Thanks, Candace, I love the question, which is:

What was your favorite book during those important early years? What impact has that story had on your life? How can you relate that story to current events?

I had a couple of different choices. The first thing that came to mind was Charlotte’s Web. The second that came to mind was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The third that came to mind was Flowers in the Attic. No, just kidding about that last one.

But then I had to throw those precious books aside – as marvelous and important as they were to me – and go with Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh.


I honestly don’t know if Harriet the Spy could even be published today. She is such an unconventional heroine. She’s not always likable. She’s bossy, secretive, contemptuous, and sometimes witheringly mean to her best friends. She sees people’s weaknesses – that is Harriet’s great gift and great curse. She finds weaknesses interesting. She spies on people. SHE BREAKS INTO PEOPLE’S HOMES TO SPY ON THEM. She hides in the dumbwaiter of one rich old broad’s house, who never gets out of bed, and writes down everything the rich old broad says. Harriet sees things like: women buying 50 cans of cat food in the store, and she wonders about it. Why? Can someone have that many cats? And if so, why? What is that woman’s life like? Then she will follow that woman home to find out. She peeks through windows, stares through air shafts … she has certain pitstops she has to hit every day. She memorizes people’s schedules so she knows where to be at what time. Harriet is a lunatic. A small criminal in training.

However, when I say Harriet is hugely responsible for who I am today – I am not talking about being a criminal. I’m talking about being observant. I’m talking about finding the human race interesting enough to make it your calling. Observing, imitating, delving into, writing about it. Whatever it may be. Harriet certainly judges. She feels bad for the man with the cats. She hates some of the kids at school. She thinks the Drama teacher is a moron. But above all else: she finds them all interesting. She is a difficult person. She is 11 years old and she is already an eccentric.

I was like that. I was not an easy child. I did not fit into any mold. I knew who I was very early. Harriet seared into me. She flames off the page. Still. Harriet still has the power to make me be brave in scary situations. To face the truth. To grow up. To let go of things that are stupid. To trudge through the tough times, gritting your teeth and bearing it. Etc. She is still my role model, in so many ways. Role models aren’t perfect. Anyone who is a paragon of good-ness is highly suspect in my eyes. I don’t trust them. In the same way that I do not trust fundamentalists, or those who know – without a shadow of a doubt – that they are right. Nope. That’s a house of cards. I do not trust those people. I do not trust people who do not admit weakness in themselves, but who are so eager to see weakness in others. But someone who is flawed? Who struggles, and honestly? Who makes mistakes and maybe is awkward and bumbling at growth? I trust those people.

Through the course of the book, Harriet eventually learns to have compassion for people’s weaknesses, as opposed to just ghoulish curiosity. However, there is no real “lesson”, or moral here. That’s one of the extraordinary things about this book, the difficult things. Kids are spoon-fed stupid morality lessons nowadays – every single piece of literature has to “teach” you something – hence the quality of books have gone down, and difficult complex truths are avoided.

At the very end of the book, after Harriet goes through HELL because the entire school reads her private (and very bitchy and very mean) journal … Harriet eventually realizes, in a moment of clarity: “Sometimes you have to lie.”

Let’s hear it again: Sometimes you have to lie.

Those words just echoed through my head when I first read them, and they still echo today. “Sometimes you have to lie.” I still think of that, at times. If you think your best friend is ugly and a little bit crazy, does it in any way help her to tell her point-blank, “I think you’re ugly and a little bit crazy”? Harriet learns to hold her tongue, and she learns to lie. And in the context of the book, that is a good thing. It is part of growing up. I mean … what?? (Come to think of it, I just wrote about this this past week.) It’s a complex thought, and it’s not spelled out for the kids reading the book. It’s not wrapped up in a neat little bow to make it palatable and understandable to kids.

Harriet, at the end of the book, is not any less brilliant, or any less ambitious. She is going to be a writer. Or a spy. Or something GREAT. But she has learned to censor herself and her contempt for others. She has been beaten down by too much truth, and she chooses to keep her two best friends in her life (Sport and Janie) rather than lose them.

I love Harriet. It hurts how much I love her. There is NO WAY ON EARTH that you could EVER convince me that Harriet does not live off the page, that she does not go on, that Harriet is not “out there” somewhere. She is REAL.

Maybe the book is about learning to take the high road, even if it means sacrificing things you hold dear. Maybe the book is about not sweating the small stuff. Maybe the book is about loyalty. But loyalty to what? Harriet must not betray her inner voice. Harriet NEEDS to spy on people. Harriet might have a great future in the CIA, who knows. She could be working for the United States government right now. She has a gift. She is 10 years old, and she is damn good at what she does. She sets out every day on her “rounds”. She has her notebook, and her special belt – where she has clipped a flashlight, a penknife, and other tricks of her trade. What feeds Harriet? What turns Harriet on? Humanity. PEOPLE. She NOTICES things.

Harriet, with all her faults and failings, is AWAKE.

God, I loved her for that, and I still do. She taught me how to look. How to really see.

Harriet taught me how to be awake. I started keeping a journal because of Harriet, and because Harriet always used one of those black and white composition books, so did I. I used those as a kid, and I still use them today. Diary Friday all comes out of piles and piles of black and white composition books.

Harriet’s life looked nothing like mine. She grew up in New York City. She was a strictly urban kid. She had a nanny who was a highly mysterious and bossy woman, a hard-ass, but so lovable you think your heart might crack open, named Ole Golly. (I refused to see the movie because Rosie O’Donnell was Ole Golly. This so offended my interpretation of the character that I refused to subject myself to it. A cutesy eunuch Ole Golly? What are you – out of your mind?? Ole Golly has a secret life, a secret boyfriend … this is a woman who has de-sexualized herself completely in one area of her life – as a nanny – and who lives it UP in another area of her life – with her secret long-term beau. Ole Golly is a grown-up, dammit, not a pug-faced self-regarding homunculit.) Harriet’s parents were urbane busy atheists. Yup – atheists. AND they are not judged for it by the book. They are who they are. The parents leave Harriet HIGHLY unsupervised. I mean, their child goes out every day wearing a SPY OUTFIT, and breaks into people’s homes … and they have no idea. They are going to the opera, to benefits, the theatre … They are not involved in the nitty-gritty of Harriet’s life. But Ole Golly sure as hell is.

I grew up in a small university town, with acres of turf farms on one side, and the Atlantic ocean on the other side. I had parents who loved me and who were very involved. Catholics. I did not have a nanny.

But I related to Harriet’s soul. I still do. I still learn from Harriet. I probably read that book once a year. She’s one of the greatest female characters of all time. She’s right up there with Jane Eyre and Anna Karenina, as far as I am concerned.

I still try to live up to Harriet’s high standards. I can be unforgiving like Harriet. I can have contempt for other people’s weaknesses. I can hold people to a standard which is impossibly high, so that it sets me up for crushing disappointment. But through writing – through the act of putting pen to paper – I am usually able to see deeper, to go beyond the surface of things.

And to never … ever … lose interest in people. Like Tracy Lord says in Philadelphia Story to “Mike” – “The time to make up your mind about people … is never.”

And if I had to say how Harriet relates to current events? I don’t know. In terms of my own current events, I think I have already covered that. But in terms of the world? I’ll riff a little bit, and see what I come up with:

— Harriet learns that honesty is not always the best policy. Sometimes it is the better thing to soften the blow, to be more diplomatic. “Sometimes you have to lie.” That seems to be relevant.

— In terms of parenting, and the whole craze of over-protective parents everyone talks about all the time: Harriet is indicative that little kids can handle a lot of independence, and they may get into trouble- Harriet gets into major trouble – but by avoiding trouble, or by protecting your kids vigorously from every brand of trouble – you will be robbing them of great life experiences. Harriet is laid LOW through her troubles. She goes through the bleakest time imaginable when the entire school hates her. It’s even hard to read about. But she needs to go through that. Even Ole Golly bails on her. Ole Golly realizes that Harriet no longer needs “a nanny” … and the best thing for Harriet would be for her to be abandoned. I mean, this is a tough tough lesson, and Ole Golly is willing to do it. Harriet needs to grow the fuck up, and she will be unable to do so as long as Ole Golly is around as a crutch. So Ole Golly leaves. Harriet must fend for herself. This is not an easy book, and Harriet’s loneliness and fear is palpable. You want to climb into the book and tell her it’s going to be okay, this too shall pass, she’s an amazing person, she will be an amazing woman … but that wouldn’t help Harriet. Harriet can’t skip that step of growing up. Her parents can’t protect her, Ole Golly can’t protect her … Harriet makes mistakes, and she has to learn how to clean up her OWN messes. And she does. This book is a perfect example of how sometimes letting kids just go is the best policy.

The other thing the book shows, in terms of parenting, is that parents can invest too much in their little progeny. They actually believe that they can mold the child’s personality, that they can create a mini-them. I’m not talking about instilling values or morals – I’m talking about parents who believe that they can create little mirror images of themselves, and then are SHOCKED when the kid has a mind of her own. Well, that’s the parent’s fault. The kid is a person on their own. Why don’t you just sit back and let the KID tell you who they are? Sure, help them with tough decisions, teach them right from wrong … but other than that? Leave them alone and maybe YOU’LL learn something from THEM.


Look at her belt! Look at her sneakers! She didn’t need the glasses, but she wore them because they made her look sharp and smart. Harriet is NUTS. I love her to death.

This is one of my favorite books of all time.

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21 Responses to Harriet the Spy

  1. JFH says:

    Great book, but the very thought of a tomato sandwich still makes me gag (Obviously, I’m not a big tomato fan).

  2. red says:

    That was another thing I related to … not the tomato sandwich, which is kind of gross … but as a kid (and even now – as an adult) I pretty much eat the same thing every day. I am stuck in my ways.

  3. Dave J says:

    “Sometimes you have to lie.” … “Harriet might have a great future in the CIA, who knows. She could be working for the United States government right now.”

    I hope you will find pleasingly of note that my dad, who worked in various parts of the intel community to remain nameless, has a copy of that book in his office, alongside a million other things relatings to computers, cryptology and the history of espionage.

  4. red says:

    Yay!!! Go, Harriet!

  5. Shaken says:

    Your words regarding current trends in parenting are resounding. It’s as though we have lost sight of the fact that children are a gift, and are on loan to us. To me, the joy of parenting is in the unique intimacy that being a parent affords: each day I am witness to the miracle of my children, and each day is a fresh scene. They are theirs, and I am their resource. And it was that very thought process that inspired me to start this game of blogging tag. Your long and thoughtful article was well worth the trip.

  6. Candace says:

    Red, you’re brilliant. Now I have to go get the book for my daughter (who may have, methinks, already read it, but I haven’t so… what?????)

    Harriet sounds cool. And you’re right. Parents have a job, and they can’t forget what that is. Today I did the “tough love” act with a particularly difficult & “me-me-me” 11-yr-old and… I did not feel bad. I was okay with it. I really felt that she was out of line and I was not. Get over it, baby. Lovin’ you, but…

    Parenting is not a popularity contest, nor is it something (IMHO) that should be handed off to someone else. Yes, my child has been in daycare. Yes, if I could afford it, I would quite possibly have a nanny because it would make my life easier (and, to a degree, my daughter’s). That being said, I would NOT hand over responsibility to said nanny; said nanny would be a “stand-in” for Mommy. Period.

    Back on topic, I will get the Harriet the Spy book and will confirm (or not) that my daughter has read it (I’m thinkin… she has already).

    Books are a window into a world that we, personally, have not had opportunity to visit. They are a lifeblood and sometimes a saviour (who has not needed an ‘escape’ from an ugly moment in time?).

    Reading to children, and giving them the multiple gift of escape, research, novelty… does it get any better than that?

    Red, thanks for the post/response. As I’ve mentioned before, your post is my “grown-up” bedtime story… you make me re-think previous decisions and assumptions and … whatever. And you are witty and insightful, and IMHO an absolute delight.

    Carry on.

  7. don says:

    What was your favorite book during those important early years? TOM SAWYER I read and reread this book constantly when I was a kid, but I have also read Harriet the spy and loved it. Have not thought about it in years. Tried to find it but my room is so full of books and dvds it was a hopeless

  8. Carrie says:

    Count me as another Harriet the Spy fan. Loved that book growing up. Was so jealous of a girl in my class who looked like what I imagined Harriet. And even became a tomato sandwich convert. Which sounds like something I should make now. With lots and lots of mayo.

  9. mitchell says:

    as many of your readers know…Stuart Little changed my life!

  10. ricki says:

    A lovable, disturbing book.

    Didn’t Harriet have another hobby, where she imagined families and their lives (I seem to remember in the book, she is looking at the roots of a tree and imagining them as the highways the fathers drive home on – maybe another book but it sorta had the Harriet ‘ethos’), but the lives she imagines for them are sort of tragic and sad.

    That part always sort of creeped me out and yet intrigued me. I was waaaaaaay too shy and deferential towards adults to contemplate spying on them, but I liked the idea of having “control” over these imaginary characters, where you totally dictate their lives.

    I refused to see the movie too, for the same reasons as you (And also because I suspected they’d cutesy up what was really a rather dark book. Kids like dark, or at least some kids do. At least, I did.). I also always pictured Ole Golly as a Black woman, for some reason, because of her name.

  11. red says:

    To anyone who is unaware … here is the story of Mitchell and Stuart Little. You won’t want to miss it.

  12. red says:

    ricki – Yeah, Harriet is not a child who seeks happy endings. She loves flaws and tragedy. But she’s kind of cold about it … I agree, it’s creepy. But fascinating.

    And her parents – whenever they show up – are always in evening dress – either ready to go out, or coming home late – and they are always mixing martinis.

    Harriet is on her own. Ole Golly is the caretaker.

    But again: the book isn’t trying to make some political point about child-rearing. I’m just reading that into it now, because that was part of the question.

    The parents are the parents. They are not bad. They love Harriet. They are who they are.

    Alfre Woodard would make a good Ole Golly. Like: she can be tough as nails, but also there’s something about her that you just LOVE.

  13. Stevie says:

    I love the story of Mitchell and Stuart Little and that very special teacher. For some reason it reminds me of “The Miracle Worker” in the sense that the teacher is opening a door to understanding for the student. There is no greater gift.

    I wish I had read Harriet the Spy when I was a kid. Sounds sublime. I just might pick it up now.

    As an only child, I read lots of books about big, boisterous families – Cheaper by the Dozen, Life with Father, The All-of-a-Kind Family, The Boxcar Children, Little Women . . loved them all. When I was very young I loved everything by Beverly Cleary – Henry and Ribsy, Beezus and Ramona, B is for Betsy. The other category that appealed to me was can-do boys who did projects and started businesses with the help of their friends – Danny Dunn (there’s about 30 of these), and especially Henry Reed, a thoughtful kid who came to visit his aunt and uncle in a rural town every summer (Grover’s Corners) and proceeded to start some company, baby-sitting or lawn-mowing or whatever.

  14. Just1Beth says:

    I love that picture of her. She looks just like you when you were a kid- right down to the sneakers!

  15. red says:

    beth – I still kind of dress like that, actually!! And I have the thick goofy glasses too …

  16. Doug Sundseth says:

    I’ve enjoyed Harriet the Spy, but I have to put in a good word for Encyclopedia Brown too. I can still remember some of the “cases” he solved. Now I think I’ll have to buy both for my son in the next couple of years.

  17. The Meme Police, cont.

    Sheila O’Malley celebrates “one of the greatest female characters of all time.”…

  18. ricki says:

    Doug, I have to admit the one big reason I regret not having kids is not having someone I can introduce to the books I loved as a kid.

    (I will say I’m hoping and waiting on my brother and sister-in-law – being an aunt is almost like being a mother, but without having to deal with the diaper issue. And my standard baby-shower gift package includes a copy of either “Frog and Toad” or “Morris the Moose” or maybe a couple of the Bill Peet books or hardback Richard Scarry, if it’s someone I really love and I’m feeling particularly generous).

  19. Doug Sundseth says:

    One of my frustrations is that I want to introduce my son to the things I found fun/interesting/important/affecting right now. But he’s five years old, and much would pass him by completely. It seems like the window in which he will be the right age and maturity while still living with us is so very small. How can I ever give him the things that seem so important to me while still giving him the time and space to discover an entirely new set of important things and the time to just do random kid stuff like throwing rocks in puddles?

    Oh well, I just hope that I can arrive at a reasonable balance — we’ll see eventually.

  20. Eric says:

    The only books I remember clearly (and fondly) from my preteen years are Harriet the Spy, and E.L. Konigsberg’s “From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler”, about a girl who runs away, hides (well, lives) in the Met with her little brother, and finds… well I won’t spoil the book, but I loved it as a kid.

    And Pfeiffer’s Phantom Tollbooth, which is a little like Joseph Heller tried to write a Dr. Seuss book….

  21. red says:

    Eric – you have just listed 2 of my other favorite books as a kid. My brother turned me on to Phantom Tollbooth when I was 11 or so … and Mixed-up Files is a classic book. I still have the copy I had as a kid.