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Harriet the Spy
By: Louise Fitzhugh


First published 1964
By Louise Fitzhugh (1928 – 1974)

“Sometimes you have to lie. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.”

This project has involved rereading lots of books almost 40 years or so after i first read them. They all had many different influences on me, but Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh was the first time I thought about being a writer. I defintely got my first notebook after reading it and since then I have never not had one, even though it’s Evernote on my iPhone now. There is a special pleasure to opening a fresh page and the ability to say anything you want or need. When this book was first published in 1964 there were some criticisms; mostly because it was unlike all other children’s books, but specifically almost none of the characters is particularly noble or even very good, including the protagonist. The story is most importantly, groundbreaking in its realism and unflinching in its portrayal of the brutal poiltics of preadolescence. This realism is also finely assisted by Ms Fitzhugh’s own stark and soul-baring, pen-and-ink illustrations.

New York City on the Upper East Side is not so different now as it was in the early 60?s; just on a matter of scale. Harriet M. Welch residing on East 87th St., and attended to by full time servants, is a preadolescent, rich girl of her times. With mostly absentee parents, a wise and strict yet indulgent nanny, and an indulgent-by-duress cook, Harriet is living her life on her own terms, all by 11 years old. A self-proclaimed writer-to-be and lover of compulsive behavior (tomato sandwich, anyone?), she is inordinately, almost obsessively, involved in her research, i.e., spying and writing poignant yet biting commentary on her friends, classmates, and neighbors. Harriet’s notebook entries are, by any measure, cruelly detailed, and she clearly suffers from the classic defect of hubris. Her fall must come and it does two-fold, home and school (the two lives of every kid), she loses both her nanny and her notebook. The depiction of Harriet’s punishment at the hands of her classmates rings hauntingly true. It is her fall, punishment, and how she comes to understand what she must do to make amends which is why she’s been the literary hero she’s has for almost half a century.

Before Harriet the Spy, Ms. Fitzhugh was the illustrator on the cult classic Suzuki Beane (annoyingly expensive on Amazon), among others. She also wrote two sequels, The Long Secret, published the next year, which I read back then and remember liking, as well as, Sport, that was published posthumously in 1979, which I haven’t read – yet. Ms Fitzhugh’s career and life were cut short, tragically, at the age of 46. According to a fan website, there are several unpublished manuscripts; here’s hoping these eventually find the light of day. I first read Harriet when I was in fifth grade and I loved it immediately and personally. It exposed the first real itch I ever recognized to commit pen to paper, and also a lifelong habit of sharply observing people. Almost four decades on, I can’t say I feel any differently. I reread Harriet prior to writing this and more than anything I felt like going to a stationary store, if they still exist, and buying a notebook, if they still exist, and writing down everything I saw and thought, the way I started to do when I was 10 years old.

Recommended ages: 10 – 14

Purple Socks: A Louise Fitzhugh Tribute Site

View similarly tagged reviews: 5 Star Reviews, Fiction, Young Adult
Posted by johnnya on June 20, 2013 at 6:53 p.m.
1 Comment

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