Louise Fitzhugh‘s Harriet the Spy was one of my favorite books when I was about the title character’s age – that is, 11. Fitzhugh published the book in 1964; it won the New York Times Outstanding Book Award that year. And it’s had staying power: More than three decades after it was published, Nickelodeon made it into a movie.
The story is about Harriet M. Welsch, aspiring spy, who uses her journal to take down observations of the people around her. The climax of the plot is that her journal is discovered and read by her friends – who then form the “Spy Catcher’s Club” to punish her. After some pain and suffering for all involved things do work out, though. Harriet’s friends lose interest in tormenting her. Then Harriet becomes editor of the class newspaper and uses her new position to make a public apology.
It’s not surprising why her friends are shocked when they read Harriet’s notebook. She doesn’t pull punches. And why should she? She thinks what she’s writing is private.
“WHEN I GROW UP I WILL BE A SPY. I WILL BE THE BEST SPY THERE EVER WAS AND I WILL KNOW EVERYTHING. EVERYTHING.”
“IF THEY HAD A BABY IT WOULD LAUGH ALL THE TIME AT THEM, SO IT’S A GOOD THING THEY DON’T. ALSO IT MIGHT NOT BE PERFECT, AND THEN THEY MIGHT KILL IT. I’M GLAD I’M NOT PERFECT.”
“MY MOTHER IS ALWAYS SAYING PINKY WHITEHEAD’S WHOLE PROBLEM IS HIS MOTHER. DOES HIS MOTHER HATE HIM? IF I HAD HIM I’D HATE HIM.”
In 2008 National Public Radio’s Morning Edition did a feature on the book, comparing Harriet with Nancy Drew, the other girl sleuth popular in the 1960s. Nancy was prim and proper, while Harriet was messy and loud – in fact at one point, Harriet finds out that the family’s cook is baking a cake, and deliberately stomps around the kitchen so that the cake falls in the pan.
When I read the book in elementary school, I loved it because I recognized myself in Harriet. Like her, I felt like an observer among my peers, not quite able to fit in; like her I felt compelled to write my observations down, and I didn’t know many other kids who did that. But Harriet had something I didn’t think I had, and that was fearlessness. She wrote exactly what she thought, without editing. She faithfully covered her “spy route” and kitted herself out with detective tools that she wore on a belt around her waist.
And Harriet learns that different kinds of honesty exist – a key lesson for writers everywhere, no matter what age. After her journal has been discovered, Harriet receives a letter from her former nanny, Ole Golly, who tells her that if anyone ever reads her notebook, “You have to do two things, and you don’t like either one of them. 1: You have to apologize. 2: You have to lie. Otherwise you are going to lose a friend.” Ole Golly also tells Harriet that “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.”
One may or may not agree with these ideas about truth and lies, but the fact that Fitzhugh explored them through a book that had an 11-year-old girl as its heroine knocks my socks off, even now. What did I learn from Harriet the Spy? Writing the truth isn’t always tidy, or convenient — and it’s necessary to handle one’s writing with care — but it’s crucial to an authentic creative process. Writers need their pens, their paper in order to understand the world, and they need the freedom to write without censorship, internal or external. When Harriet’s parents take her notebook away, she realizes how important writing is to her: “She found that when she didn’t have a notebook it was hard for her to think. The thoughts came slowly, as though they had to squeeze through a tiny door to get to her, whereas when she wrote, they flowed out faster than she could put them down.” I could relate to this feeling when I was 11, and I can relate to it now.