Although Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy was widely lauded upon its publication in 1964 (when it was included in a list of “The Year’s Best Juveniles” in the New York Times Book Review), it is perhaps not surprising that it also received some very mixed reviews. After all, the book’s unforgettable protagonist, Harriet M. Welsch, is not your typical sweet, well-behaved 11-year-old girl; rather, she is judgmental, finicky, and disobedient. Of course, she’s also smart and imaginative, a keen observer of the world around her, with admirable ambitions to grow up and be a writer (and/or an international spy of mystery). Still, some readers were unable to get past Harriet’s challenging idiosyncrasies, and to appreciate that her flaws were part of what made her so real—and so relatable.
As a complicated, difficult child with a lively inner life (so, basically, a child), I loved to read about characters who were similarly complex, dynamic, and messy—think Eloise, or Pippi Longstocking—and Harriet was all of that and more. A loyal friend who nonetheless constantly recorded insightful (and often hurtful) observations about those closest to her in her ubiquitous notebook, Harriet’s unabashed honesty left me delightfully scandalized. Harriet also regularly sassed adults; she stomped up and down the stairs; she hollered at the top of her lungs. She was a rebel, wrapped in an anti-hero, wrapped in a spy belt. I wanted to be her, to befriend her, and to protect her from the consequences of her often reckless actions, all at once.
No child is perfect—but children often face high expectations from parents, teachers, and other adults in their lives. Reading a story about an intelligent but imperfect kid who struggles to make sense of the world around her can be a comfort. In Harriet the Spy, Harriet faces the kinds of ordeals that most adolescents do at some point in their lives: she loses the support of a mentor she loves and trusts (her faithful nurse, Ole Golly, who moves away), she suffers relentless cruelty at the hands of other children, she feels completely misunderstood by the adults around her, and she risks irreparably damaging her most important friendships. Fortunately, with some help from Ole Golly (who famously tells her, “You have to lie…But to yourself you must always tell the truth”), Harriet is able to overcome those difficult challenges with humor and humility. She grows and matures, while still remaining true to herself. Her reconciliation with her best friends is not seamlessly neat, but that’s what makes it authentic.
Harriet inhabits a rich, detailed world—even if, taking place as it does in the rarified atmosphere of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, it isn’t a universal one. The unique characters who populate it, from her best friend, Sport, who cooks and cleans for his absentminded father, to her elderly neighbor who hoards cats and builds birdhouses, are presented lovingly by Fitzhugh through the sharp eyes of her precocious protagonist.
Although Harriet the Spy was first published fifty years ago, its timelessness is evident, as it continues to inspire generations of children to be themselves, to do what they love, and to always remember to treat people kindly.
Harriet the Spy is now available in a special anniversary edition at barnesandnoble.com.