‘Harriet the Spy’ turns 50

YA author and editor Leila Sales celebrates the half-century mark for an iconic book and its inspiring central character

The cover of “Harriet the Spy.”

When I was growing up in the mid-1990s, my hobby was playing imaginary games. These imaginary games were not a simple matter of pretending to be a princess or hosting an American Girls fashion show. They were elaborate, plotless constructions featuring huge casts of characters — a family with 10 sisters, an orphanage with 20 charges or a stable where a dozen thoroughbred racehorses were housed and trained.

I tracked my characters’ movements in my ever-expanding folder of loose-leaf papers. The folder was cryptically labeled “I-Games” because I knew I was too old to be playing imaginary games and I didn’t want to be discovered and mocked. I was an only child, and I didn’t need another person to play with or a big outdoors to explore or expensive sporting equipment; all I needed was my folder of papers.

I’d like to take credit for coming up with the I-Games idea, but I didn’t. I was inspired by literature’s greatest would-be writer: Harriet M. Welsch, of Louise Fitzhugh’s children’s classic, “Harriet the Spy.”

The novel, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this week, opens with 11-year-old Harriet crouched in the dirt outside her Upper East Side home, trying to teach her best friend, Sport, how to play Town. The game of Town is simple: Harriet keeps track of a whole lot of made-up people in her spy notebook, her most prized possession, where she does all her writing. But Sport can’t figure out the appeal of Town. Unlike Harriet, he does not have a writer’s mind. He has his own skills, skills that make him the perfect complement to Harriet, but a rich inner world is just not one of them.

Sport isn’t the only one who doesn’t understand Harriet’s imagination and ambition. Her parents stare at her as though she were an alien. Her female classmates prefer to occupy their brains with games of mahjong. Her teacher confiscates her notebook. I can’t imagine any writer out there, from the elementary school students who flock to this book year after year, to Stephen King himself, who wouldn’t viscerally relate to Harriet’s rage when her writing is interrupted (“I’m not playing. Who says I’m playing? I’m WORKING!” she screams), or to her eagerness to know “everything in the world, everything, everything.” At one point she writes in her notebook, “I would not like to live like Mrs. Golly but I would like to know what goes on in her head," and that’s what being a writer is all about — not exactly empathy, but close enough.

Writers often feel alone and misunderstood. It’s the nature of the job. This is one of the things that makes Harriet so extraordinary: She’s a child, a fictional character, but she understands exactly what we real-life writers go through. Something Fitzhugh writes about Harriet that I have always tried to make true of myself is this: “She didn’t mind admitting she didn’t know something. So what, she thought; I could always learn.”

Hey Janie, if you were going to slit somebody’s throat, wouldn’t you do it in the dead of night?

from "Harriet the Spy"

Original art from “Harriet the Spy.”
© 1964 Louise Fitzhugh, renewed 1992 Laura Morehead

When Harriet’s notebook is discovered, the impact is miserable. Her classmates read all the less-than-flattering observations she’s made about them, and they turn on her, sending Harriet into a deep depression. You’d think more readers would take away the lesson — don’t write a spy notebook — but cautionary tales never work as well as we expect them to. During the 50 years that “Harriet the Spy” has been on the market, many, many young readers, myself included, have been inspired to start their own spy notebooks.

This is why I always scoff at children’s books that try too hard to shove morals down readers’ throats. Children are too smart for that. And that’s something else that made Fitzhugh one of the greatest writers of the genre. She wasn’t trying to teach kids to be good. She was just telling a story. There are many ways in which Harriet and her friends never learn their lesson, which made the book controversial when it was first published and has led to its banning in school systems since then. Consider, for example, this exchange:

“Hey Janie, if you were going to slit somebody’s throat, wouldn’t you do it in the dead of night?”

“I’d poison them.” Janie didn’t even turn around.

I bet you would, thought Harriet. “But, Janie, they’d just trace the poison.”

“Not the one I’ve got.”

“Did you make a new one?”


Could an author of books for 8-to-12-year-olds get away with writing such words now, in our modern-day America of school shootings and metal detectors? Would it be acceptable for two 11-year-old friends to have that conversation without learning their lesson afterward? Fitzhugh was writing in a different America, with different fears, but it was still an act of bravery. She clearly didn’t give a damn what grown-ups were going to think, as long as she was true to her characters.

That’s what makes a novel stick around for as long as “Harriet the Spy” has. The variables that matter to a book’s sales when it comes out — the advance, the marketing campaign, the reviews, how promotable or cute the author is — those things eventually lose their meaning. And then what we’re left with is simply the book itself, the story and the characters inside its covers and whether there’s something in there that to this day feels true.

The bath feels hot, the bed feels soft, but I feel there’s a funny little hole in me that wasn’t there before, like a splinter in your finger, but this is somewhere above my stomach.

from "Harriet the Spy"

Harriet and her tool belt.
© 1964 Louise Fitzhugh, renewed 1992 Laura Morehead

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned Fitzhugh was a lesbian, and I was astonished — not because I’d assumed she was heterosexual but because I’d never thought of her as being any kind of sexual. She wrote books, and that was where my interest in her personal life ended. Only when I read Kathleen Horning’s “Horn Book” essay on queer references in “Harriet the Spy” did I even stop to think that, yes, it was unusual for a girl in the 1960s to tromp around town in jeans and a tool belt.

The thing is, though, that all kids feel different for one reason or another, and it doesn’t matter if that feeling is caused by their sexuality or their career dreams or anything else. And Harriet welcomes them all when she writes, “I think I made up a good moral — that is that some people are one way and some people are another and that’s that.”

Honestly, I don’t know if Harriet grows up to be a lesbian like her creator. We’ll never know, because she never does grow up; whom she goes on to fall in love with is left up to the reader’s imagination. There’s such an expanse of emotion and experience outside of romantic love, yet so many books and movies overlook that truth. Even this year’s fantastic Newbery Award winner, Kate DiCamillo’s “Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures,” which is written for the same age group as “Harriet the Spy,” mentions how nice it feels when the female protagonist holds hands with her male friend. Writers adore hinting at romance. But one of the great things about Harriet is that, no matter what her sexual preferences might turn out to be, she never holds anybody’s hand.

Even so, Harriet does love, very deeply. She loves herself, as she straightforwardly announces, and she loves her nanny, Ole Golly, who leaves about a third of the way into the novel, never to return. Harriet’s description of how this makes her feel is one of the simplest and more poignant depictions of what it’s like to lose a loved one:

“I feel all the same things when I do things alone as when Ole Golly was here. The bath feels hot, the bed feels soft, but I feel there’s a funny little hole in me that wasn’t there before, like a splinter in your finger, but this is somewhere above my stomach.”

Out of all of them — Harriet’s classmates, teachers, parents, friends — Ole Golly is the only one who understands Harriet’s writing, the only one who really understands Harriet. It’s Ole Golly who ultimately, in the book’s conclusion, exhorts Harriet to turn her notes into an actual story, and that advice becomes Harriet’s salvation. Similarly, when I was around Harriet’s age, I finally set aside my I-Games and started using my imagination to write a novel. Children must grow up eventually. But, Harriet teaches us, they don’t ever have to give up the ability to see the world in a blank piece of paper.

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