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Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet the Spy (1964)

by Louise Fitzhugh

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I just read this for the billionth time -- this time out loud, to my son. Pronouncing each word forced me to notice the casual brilliance of Fitzhugh's prose. "There was a cold wind off the water, but the day was one of those bright, brilliant, shining days that made her feel the world was beautiful, would always be, would always sing, could hold no disappointments." "She looked out over the water to the neon sign whose pink greed spoiled the view at night." Dazzling. ( )
  Deborah_Markus | Aug 8, 2015 |
This isn’t a great children’s book. This is a great book whose protagonist happens to be very young.

This is a book that manages to be shocking in spite of the absence of sex, drugs, and violence. Harriet isn’t forced to kick arse in a fight to the death, or struggle to feed her family. On the contrary, the only shocking thing about her personal circumstances is how privileged she is. Her family employs a housemaid, a cook, and a “nurse” improbably named Ole Golly.

It can be hard for a modern reader of any age to understand what exactly that last job entails. Harriet isn’t sick, or sickly, so Ole Golly isn’t that kind of nurse. Ole Golly isn’t a babysitter exactly, either. She does stay with Harriet when her parents go to parties at night, which is frequently; but she doesn’t supervise Harriet very closely, or even walk her to school. She’s a bit like a governess, but she doesn’t teach lessons.

Actually, she does. She just isn’t paid to. And although Harriet leads a pampered existence, Ole Golly believes she can handle tough truths. “Tears won’t bring me back,” she says sternly when she has to leave Harriet for good. “Remember that. Tears never bring anything back. Life is a struggle and a good spy gets in there and fights. Remember that. No nonsense.”

And, later, in a letter:

If you’re missing me I want you to know I’m not missing you. Gone is gone. I never miss anything or anyone because it all becomes a lovely memory. I guard my memories and love them, but I don’t get in them and lie down. You can even make stories from yours, but remember, they don’t come back. Just think how awful it would be if they did. You don’t need me now. You’re eleven years old which is old enough to get busy at growing up to be the person you want to be.

Don’t sit around missing me when I’m gone. Life is tough, and eleven years old is plenty old enough to get out there and start fighting for what you need.

Tell that to a generation who grew up on the creepy stalker vision of parental care presented in Love You Forever.

This may not sound too startling to people who regularly devour dystopian and gritty urban YA fiction. Yes, Katniss has to fight actual life-or-death battles. But the whole point of her story is that she shouldn’t have to. Harriet is taught early on that life is a fight, and even members of the well-fed elite have to jump into the ring.

Granted, Harriet’s battles are brought on by her own worst qualities. She has a lot of them. She is not a winning, adorable child. She’s blunt and obnoxious and thinks mean things even about the people she cares about. And she doesn’t care about many.

She alienates everyone she knows with her writing. And then she wins them back – with her writing.

This book has aged well in every sense. It’s fun for an adult to read or reread because the writing is ridiculously, enviably good. It’s a book to give to children for the same reason. It’s also a terrific cautionary tale for very modern reasons.

As Meg Cabot, author of the Princess Diaries series, points out in her short appreciative essay:

Louise Fitzhugh could not have known how prescient Harriet the Spy was. Fifty years after its publication, some young girls and boys (and even old ones too) are still recording their innermost thoughts and feelings, only now they’re doing it far too publicly on the Internet, causing themselves untold amounts of trouble.

If only they listened to Ole Golly.

Cabot’s essay is included along with several others, all by prominent writers. Gregory Maguire’s even includes an excerpt from an early diary he kept after being inspired by Harriet’s example:

Tonight when we were going to swim, Annie said, “Aaahh! There’s a spider in my goggles.”
Joe said, “Drown it! Throw it in the lake!”
Annie said, “No, don’t drown it.”
I said, “Annie, since when have you cared about the welfare of a measly spider?”
She said, “It’s not that. I just don’t want any drowned spiders in any lake that I intend to swim in.”

Read this book if you haven’t already. Reread it if it’s been awhile. And get this anniversary edition if you don’t already have your own copy of Harriet. It’s a lot of fun to see how other authors were affected by the abrasive but compelling Harriet M. Welsch.
( )
1 vote Deborah_Markus | Aug 8, 2015 |
Harriet loves to write down everything in her notebook. Some of it is nice. Some of it is not-so-nice.

And then Harriet loses her notebook.

And then Harriet loses all her friends.

You don’t often find a story with the emotional resonance of Harriet the Spy. ( )
  debnance | Jul 25, 2015 |
Such an interesting character! I can understand why it is so popular. ( )
  joeydag | Jul 23, 2015 |
The only thing I remembered from my childhood reading of this book was "cake and milk!" It is dated in that old money New York way - Harriet has a "nurse" (nanny), "Ole Golly," and the family has a cook, and Harriet doesn't see her parents very often, and she attends a small private school. She also has the freedom to wander about the neighborhood (spying on people, naturally), more so than most sixth-graders have today (despite the fact that it is actually safer now than it was in the 1960s).

Two major changes occur in Harriet's life during the course of the book: first, Ole Golly leaves, and second, Harriet's notebook is discovered and read by her classmates, who turn against her (forming a Spy Catcher Club). Even her best friends Sport and Janie won't speak to her. Harriet's parents, at last realizing something is wrong, send her to a psychiatrist, and speak to the school principal; they also arrange for Ole Golly to send Harriet a letter. Harriet doesn't change her ways entirely - she can't give up her notebook - but she does apologize and print a retraction in the school paper. The ending is rather abrupt.


She never minded admitting she didn't know something. So what, she thought; I could always learn. (50)

Life is a great mystery. Is everybody a different person when they are with somebody else? (Harriet's notebook, 97)

Remember that writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends. But to yourself you must always tell the truth. (Ole Golly's letter to Harriet, 278) ( )
  JennyArch | Mar 5, 2015 |
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Series (with order)
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Original publication date
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Important events
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First words
Harriet was trying to explain to Sport how to play town.
[Harriet] hated math. She hated math with every bone in her body. She spent so much time hating it that she never had time to do it.
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
This is the book, not the movie.
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References to this work on external resources.

Wikipedia in English (1)

Book description
Harrriet M Welsch is a spy. She's staked out a spy route, and she writes down everything about everyone she sees, including her classmates and even her best friends. From Harriet's notebooks: I bet the lady with the crosks-eye looks in the mirror and feels just terrible. Pinky Whitehead will never change, does his mother hate him? If I had him, I'd hate him. If Marion Hawthorne doesn't watch out she's going to grow up into a lady Hitler. Then Harriet loses track of her notebook, and it ends up in the wrong hands. Before Harriet can stop them, her friends have read the always truthful, sometimes awful things she's written about each of them. Will Harriet find a way to put her life and her friendships back together? (0-440-41679-5)
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0440416795, Paperback)

Ages 8-12. Thirty-two years before it was made into a movie, Harriet the Spy was a groundbreaking book: its unflinchingly honest portrayal of childhood problems and emotions changed children's literature forever. Happily, it has neither dated nor become obsolete and remains one of the best children's novels ever written. The fascinating story is about an intensely curious and intelligent girl, who literally spies on people and writes about them in her secret notebook, trying to make sense of life's absurdities. When her classmates find her notebook and read her painfully blunt comments about them, Harriet finds herself a lonely outcast. Fitzhugh's writing is astonishingly vivid, real and engaging, and Harriet, by no means a typical, loveable heroine, is one of literature's most unforgettable characters. School Library Journal wrote, "a tour de force... bursts with life." The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books called it "a very, very funny story." And The Chicago Tribune raved, "brilliantly written... a superb portrait of an extraordinary child."

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:35 -0400)

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Eleven-year-old Harriet keeps notes on her classmates and neighbors in a secret notebook, but when some of the students read the notebook, they seek revenge.

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