Welcome back to C+S Book Club! Last time around we focused on that total bitch Amy March, and now we’re celebrating another childhood favorite — Harriet The Spy.
Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet The Spy feels so current – controversial, even – that it’s hard to believe it turns 50 this year. Whether you were a nosy kid, an aspiring writer, or just fascinated by the world around you, Harriet The Spy spoke to a lot of us. Like all the best children’s books, Harriet The Spy was banned by adults couldn’t deal with how awesome it was, probably because it contained real talk contains real talk that adults don’t think 9-year-olds are ready for. In the case of Harriet The Spy, the lessons were lifelong.
Sometimes The Whole Truth Isn’t The Kindest Thing
This lesson is the hardest thing for Harriet – and it’s one that I’m still working on when I write. The sixth-grade jerks find some awful things about themselves when they read Harriet’s notebook (never have I been so indignant on a character’s behalf!). Harriet just wrote what she saw, but the unflinching honesty was a little unkind.
I discovered censorship in first grade. I was writing a story about two siblings fighting, and had the sister scream “I hate you!” at her brother during the argument. My teacher changed it to “I dislike you!” I was furious – who, in a fit of childhood rage, has ever screamed “I dislike you!” at their sibling? I still believe that good writing requires honesty and authenticity. But when talking about real people, sometimes you have to soften your “I hate yous” into “I dislike yous” for the sake of real feelings.
Fitzhugh said it best: “Little lies that make people feel better are not bad, like thanking someone for a meal they made even if you hated it, or telling a sick person they look better when they don’t, or someone with a hideous new hat that it’s lovely. But to yourself you must tell the truth.” Observe honestly, think honestly – but smooth out the truth with little lies when you need to.
“There Is As Many Ways To Live As There Are People On The Earth”
One thing that huffy moms didn’t like about Harriet The Spy was the cast of wacky characters that Harriet spies on – people who resemble the weirdos and quirks that bona fide children run across all the time. There was the cat man, the family who owns the Chinese grocery, the grand Agatha K. Plummer. Even your most mundane-looking families are all different from each other if you just watch them. Maybe it’s not so much these characters that set parents ill-at-ease, but rather Harriet’s assessment of them:
“Ole Golly says there is as many ways to live as there are people on the earth and I shouldn’t go round with blinders but should see every way I can. Then I’ll know what way I want to live and not just live like my family.”
See Everything. Write Everything.
We’ve all heard the advice to write what you know. It follows that the more you know about the more you can write about. If you want to be a writer, like Harriet, you have to keep your eyes and ears open so you can learn about all the ways there are to live. A book full of characters who live the way you do – because that’s all you know – just wouldn’t be very good.
Harriet didn’t just see everything, she wrote everything – on Ole Golly’s advice. Really, what a great thing to tell an 11-year-old (or an adult!) who wants to write. You may have a lot of faith in your memory, but it’s fallible. You have to write everything because you never know what details you might want to use someday. Besides, everyday practice – something we recommend for kids who want to master a sport or an instrument – is necessary for writing, too.
Know What You Like
Harriet eats tomato sandwiches every day. She wears her same weird spy outfit every day, too. And how about the Boy With The Purple Socks? It’s not good to be bullheaded and resistant to change. But if you like tomato sandwiches, you don’t have to switch to egg salad just because people think you should.
Be A Harriet. Be a Janie. Be a Sport.
Harriet broke and entered into homes with a notebook in hand, pretending to be an 11-year-old Mata Hari. Janie set up a science lab in her bedroom, conducting weird experiments and learning everything she could about chemistry and physics. Sport lived with his dad and singlehandedly ran the household – including the finances – while dreaming of becoming a baseball player. Harriet, Janie and Sport all do things.
There’s nothing more annoying – even in adulthood – than people who expect you to be impressed by what they plan to do. You know, the people who talk ad nauseum about how they’ll open a restaurant or write a great book, but don’t take the boring, grueling baby steps to actually get there? People who want to do things aren’t impressive, people who do them are – even if they try and fail. I’m impressed by the people who take those awful boring writing assignments in the hopes that they’ll learn something they can apply later, or the people working the grueling lab job on a hunch that it will put them into contact with the best researchers. Harriet, Janie and Sport were just sixth-graders, but already they were the type of people who did things. They did things that might look weird to other people, simply because it’s what they wanted to do.
Do NOT Be A Marion Hawthorne. Do Not Be a Rachel Hennessy.
Harriet said “If Marion Hawthorne doesn’t watch out she’s going to grow up into a lady Hitler.” Harsh words, but Marion wanted the entire sixth-grade class to follow her blindly. One blind follower was Rachel Hennessy, who hosts the Spy Catcher Club (and who kids only like because her mom makes good cake). There was a whole pack of kids who followed Marion, and unlike Harriet, Jane, and Sport, they didn’t actually do things – other than try to bring Harriet down.
Change Is Hard
Ugh. Remember how painful it was when Ole Golly left? Even before that happened, Harriet was mighty jealous that her nanny was palling around with the bicycle man. Harriet reacted to these situations like a normal kid would – she pouted and threw a fit. When you grow up, you get a little better at covering it up, but this was one of the most honest parts of the book and a good lesson: change is really hard, and over time your new situation becomes normal to you.
The City Is Your Friend
Harriet The Spy is a distinctly New York City book, but it describes life that’s familiar to any city child. When you grow up in an urban neighborhood, all you have to do is walk out your front door to find all kinds of life to observe. The city itself – the sidewalks, corner stores, and most of all the people – is a character in Harriet’s life.
More broadly, Fitzhugh speaks to finding the fascinating things wherever you are. I thought my city childhood was compelling, and like Harriet I found that the most ordinary-seeming neighbors were extraordinary if I looked closer. Wherever you live as a child or an adult – a big city or a small town or the suburbs in between – there are a million things to notice if you just open your eyes, close your mouth and grab a notebook.
You Might Screw Everything Up And Lose All Your Friends
… and you’ll still be okay. This probably doesn’t happen so much when you get older (though it’s still possible), but remember those times in elementary school when you’d do one thing wrong, or have an argument with one friend, and all of a sudden it seemed like everyone was mad at you? When you get older, you can still screw up other things – there’s always something you can ruin, whether it’s a project at work or your tax return. If you give most things enough time, they’ll work out. In the meantime you have to fold up your pride, stick it in your back pocket, and try to make things right – and know that just because things went wrong doesn’t mean the world stops turning.