Harriet, fifty years a spy


While I was traveling in the US Northeast last month, a friend took me to the Eric Carle Museum, where they had on display all the illustrations that Louise Fitzhugh had done for Harriet the Spy, published in 1964, fifty years ago.

Fifty years!

I discovered the book on the library shelf not long after it was published, and glommed onto it without even looking inside. Of course I wanted to read about a girl spy!

Within the very first pages I was interested: Harriet not only considered herself a spy, her favorite game was called “Town,” in which she set up a place and peopled it with characters. I did that too!

But the thing that positively electrified me was that Harriet was busy writing in a notebook. She takes this notebook everywhere, especially on her spy route, which involved peeking in windows, through doors, down through a skylight, and even from a dumbwaiter on her selected targets.

Carl Schurz park--where Harriet hung out

Carl Schurz park–where Harriet hung out

These targets are not all children: there is Harrison Withers, who makes beautiful birdcages in one of his two rooms, the second room being given competely over to over twenty-five cats. (As a kid reader, I paid no attention to the cats’ names, but the adult me laughed at the sprinkling of famous writers, from Keats to Dostoevsky, and apparently some of the other names are friends and lovers.)

There is a couple named Robinson, who seem to have nothing to do or to talk about except buying expensive things and then inviting people over to look at them; an Italian storekeeping family, whose emotional dynamics are never boring; and a rich society woman who has taken to her bed.

When Harriet gets to school for the first day of sixth grade, she is busy taking notes on her schoolmates as well as the teachers, including her best friends, Sport, who lives alone with his father, and science-geek Janie, who has turned her bedroom into a lab so that she can develop a potion that will blow up the world.

One of the most interesting characters in the book is Ole Golly, Harriet’s nurse. This plain, middle-aged woman has a brisk, no-nonsense approach while matter-of-factly accepting Harriet’s goal to become a spy. Miss Golly furnishes fascinating quotations for any occasion, and gradually makes it clear to the reader that while she has nothing to say against Harriet’s future spy career, she fully expects Harriet to end up as a writer. As a kid reader, I had enormous respect for any adult who would acknowledge that!

neighborhood shops

We follow Ole Golly and Harriet to the small home where the former grew up. Her mother is there, and it is chillingly clear that she is mentally unstable. Old Golly wants Harriet to see her. We also in the course of Harriet’s days meet Mr. Waldenstein, once a successful businessman who gave up that life to become a delivery boy on a bicycle, which enabled him to recapture the joy of life.

It seems that he and Miss Golly have a romance going, which causes a ruction that introduces the second half of the book, Harriet without a nurse, her parents now required to become reacquainted with her in a less distant way.

Meanwhile at school, Harriet is busy writing her thoughts about her classmates as they head into the schoolyear, her mood impelled by her anger at losing Ole Golly. When she makes the mistake of annoying her friends as well as her classmates, and acting a little too mysterious about her notebook, she is tricked away from it one afternoon—she returns from a tag game to discover the book in the kids’ possession as they read out loud the unvarnished opinions expressed about them.

At that point, Harriet’s life becomes a nightmare not only at school but at home: her parents, in trying to deal with her outbursts, agree with the school to take away her notebooks altogether. Harriet crashes emotionally, but never turns away from her innermost convictions: in spying on the other kids, she discovers them allied against her, an alliance that is shaky at best.

How she comes to terms with friends, family, and her place in the world forms the third act, the pivot a last letter from Ole Golly.

When I first read this book, I was thrilled beyond measure. There was nothing like it at the library—and I had been scouring not only the kids’ shelves, but had begun to venture into the adult side, once my mother had given me a permission note.


I checked that book out again and again, reading and pondering everything in it. As a kid, of course, I identified intensely with Harriet, especially when everyone turned on her. It didn’t matter that she and I came from totally different circumstances: she was eleven, I was barely into my teens, she lived in New York, I in Los Angeles.

She had an enormous apartment and went to a small private school, had a nurse and a cook and a housekeeper; I lived in a small house with a large family, I went to a public school cram-packed with other baby boomers, and we kids had household chores. Harriet never seemed interested in magic, and she didn’t seem to read all that much, whereas magic and reading were two of my passions (besides drawing and making up stories); she was under no physical threat, whereas I was a kid at the end of the “spare the rod and spoil the child” era of child-rearing, and no one blinked an eye if you got whaled on at home, and subsequently showed up at school covered with bruises. In fact, double jeopardy was pretty much SOP: if you got in trouble at school, you were sure to catch it hot at home, too.

Harriet’s emotional isolation, her conviction that she was in the right and the world was trying to warp her in a way that would turn her into someone else, was gratifying to a breathless degree in the early-mid sixties, when conformity was still very much a cultural and social pressure. The immediate result was a surge of conviction that I was right not to cave. I had to be like Harriet!

Harriet’s notebooks were an innovative idea—I had been keeping a diary since I was eight years old, but it was always at home, and I had terrible trouble keeping them hidden. Harriet carried hers all the time, which solved the problem of it being discovered.


Using my babysitting money, I bought little notebooks that I could keep on my person, write in at any time, and no one could get at them. I kept these going for over ten years, the handwriting getting tinier and tinier, until I was in my mid-twenties and a curious boyfriend dug the latest one out of my purse when I was in the bathroom. I was as devastated as Harriet, and stopped journaling for a couple of years.

Reading Harriet the Spy again now, it struck me first how casually cruel those kids were, including Harriet. The kids’ behavior seemed realistic to me when I was a kid, and indeed, it still resonated with what I saw in the classroom as a teacher. Mercy and compassion, generally speaking, have to be taught and nurtured just as other aspects of civilization.

Second thing that had whizzed by me at the time, this conversation on page 35:

 It was finally three thirty-seven and school was over. Sport came up to Harriet. “Hey, whyncha come over this afternoon?”

 “After the spy route, maybe, if I’ve got time.”

 “Aw, gee, Janie’s working in the lab. You both are always working.”

“Why don’t you practice? How’re you ever going to be a ball player?”

 “Can’t. Have to clean the house. Come over if you get the time.”

I accepted this conversation at face value in the mid-sixties in spite of authorities’ earnest conviction that there were only three careers for spinsters whom no one would marry: teacher, secretary, or nurse. My writing was my work, and I shrugged off adult predictions about the future I should have.

At the same time, I understood Sport’s non-recognition of household chores as legitimate work. It was just junk that you had to do—my sister and I were expected to wash the dishes every day, and until we got a dryer when I was twelve, my Saturday mornings from the time I was about seven (and had to stand on an orange crate) was to hang up the family laundry on the clothes line, take it down when dry, and iron everything except my dad’s shirts. All those cotton sheets and pillow cases and my sister’s frilly dresses, because heaven forfend you climbed into a bed with wrinkled sheets. That labor didn’t deserve the dignity of work, it was just what you were forced to do, and clearly Sport thought so, too.

The third thing I noticed was how interesting it was that Harriet’s parents, who were not depicted as villains, still betrayed her. As a kid reader, I expected villainous, evil parents to betray kids, and the kids to survive and hopefully gain powers (agency). Or I read books about families that had no anxiety-making issues at home: the Melendy books, for example, that seemed like fairy tales without magic, with those big houses (basements! Attics!) in which every kid had their own space, there was even snow, and no one was ever beaten with a belt.

I did not expect a book in which the parents were basically pretty cool—but still betrayed the kid, supposedly for her own good. In an utterly unexamined way it seemed so much like our own situations. Take away the “spare the rod” anxieties of home, my friends and I basically had good homes and families, and yet there was that inexorable pressure to conform, our parents determined for our own good.

But Harriet didn’t give in.

don't knock

Many my age were  learning covert maneuvering, lip-service to authority, and silent resistance. Harriet learned compromise, and a little compassion. Okay . . . okay . . . maybe that could happen . . . Harriet the Spy reinforced our conviction that we could succeed in holding onto our dreams, though we resisted marching in the lockstep fifties conformity that was already unraveling around us. As was demonstrated within a year or so in books like teenage writer Caroline Glynn’s Don’t Knock the Corners Off.

Books were beginning to reflect the idea that holding onto one’s individualism, and one’s dreams, was a worthwhile goal.

Finally, though Harriet’s story was still an engaging, if not an engrossing read, I couldn’t help notice bits that made me wince: the Dei Santi family were pretty much Italian stereotypes. And then Harriet’s comment about Janie in the notebook, that she didn’t believe Janie would ever be a scientist, seemed too convenient—there is absolutely no sign during the early part of the book that Harriet ever swerves from her belief in Janie’s lab skills or goals.

That bit seemed stuck there to get Janie to throw in with her classmates in shunning Harriet. But those were small things, and balancing them were nifty moments, like Harriet’s thoughts when she sees Harrison Withers again, with his new kitten, and the other when Harriet reaches the low point of her life and reflects on Ole Golly:

Can they help what they’re doing? I wish I knew what Ole Golly would think of this. I have to know what she thinks. How can I find out? I think she would say that they could because they’re trying to control me and make me give up this notebook, and she always said that people who try to control people and change people’s habits are the ones that make all the trouble . . .

I wonder if that, right there, was the kernal around which the entire story formed.

So there I was at the museum, looking at Louise Fitzhugh’s drawings; I snapped this shot of the poster, which I don’t think they’d mind me putting up. I was warned not to photograph the actual drawings, which I did not do, but you can find them in the books. Nothing was displayed that didn’t appear in her books.

Harriet the Spy

As a kid, I had not liked those illustrations at all. I thought they were ugly. Distorted. The one of Harriet in particular irritated me because the text said that she had long hair, but there was that drawing of the ugly Dutch bob that most of us had to wear through our grammar school years.

The adult me was able to appreciate how very talented Fitzhugh was. She crammed so much character into those people drawings, and in a few lines she could capture the atmosphere of a locale. It made me reflect on the woman behind the lines, behind the words.

There isn’t much biographical data out there. At the museum they had a notebook full of her publisher and editorial correspondence, including with the wonderful Ursula Nordstrom of Harper, who at that very time had sent me some kind and encouraging rejections, as I’d begun sending laboriously typed manuscrips to New York when I could scrape babysitting money together. It was exciting to see Fitzhugh’s excitement over having placed the book at last, and with such an enthusiastic editorial team. They of course had no idea that the book would be such an enduring hit.

None of her subsequent novels were that successful. I eagerly pounced on The Long Secret when it came out, to general disappointment: by the time our library got it, later in 1966, the Problem Novel was pretty much a thing, and it seemed just as preachy as those, with long conversations about stuff I had little interest in reading. But by then I was gradually moving away from the concerns of kids’ books. More than ten years later Sport was published, which I might have enjoyed more as a kid, but it seemed to adult-me that the mother was a stereotype witch, and the new step-mother unbelievable in her domestic bliss, which Sport surrenders without a blink.

I found a Horn Book essay about Fitzhugh, which sheds light on some aspects of the books that I was oblivious to as a kid, but which seem obvious now. Like, I suspect that Sport was gay; was that why it took so long to publish? Anyway, all that is speculation, straying far from the pleasure of reading about Harriet, the first writer-brain I ever encountered in literature, and who convinced me to stick to my convictions, if not necessarily to the safety of my little notebooks!





Harriet, fifty years a spy — 23 Comments

  1. Interesting how tastes differ. While I liked Harriet the Spy, and re-read it several times, The Long Secret was by far my favorite. I still own that and Sport, but not Harriet. (Hmm, time for another re-read?) I’m not sure why my preference for The Long Secret, except that I found Beth Ellen very sympathetic. And the rejection of Harriet by the other kids in the second section may have struck a little too close to home.

    • Interesting indeed! I liked Beth Ellen, too. I guess as a kid reader I wanted more spy and funny, and less serious talk. The Long Secret is a good book, but a very different book from Harriet.

  2. I have very little memory of Harriet the Spy, probably because the book set off a wave of notebook keeping that was apparently so vicious a bunch of my friendly acquaintances had a notebook burning event (at a huge sleep-over one of the participants’ mothers allowed to take place, in a basement larger than the house I am living in with three other people.) That series of events swamped everything else. Lord of the Rings kept me sane. HtS felt mean to me, and I hated hurting other people. It could happen so easily when you got absorbed and were not paying attention to details.

    I journaled for years, but threw away the books when I decided that they fed depression. I returned to fiction in earnest, where I could always find hope.

    Clearly I need to return to the book with a fresh eye. Thank you for such an interesting perspective.

    • Oh, the notebooks of meanness! Yes, I’ve heard of that, but not in connection with Harriet the Spy. Wow!

      I can definitely see LOTR being a far better replacement. It was a couple years before I discovered LOTR; who knows if I would have read Harriet had I discovered Tolkien first? In retrospect, yeah, I would have. I stayed with kidzbooks for years after I read LOTR.

  3. I read at least two copies of Harriet the Spy to pieces, even after I had Tolkien. But I loved The Long Secret even more, because Beth Ellen was shy and loved quotations. I also really cherished the conversation among Harriet, Beth Ellen, and Janie about menstruation and how adults lie to you about it, and Janie’s determination to invent a way to stop the whole disgusting thing from happening.

    I liked Sport a lot too, and have retained his father’s “All I ask is day after day with nothing planned” as a kind of motto. But I was quite disturbed even as a kid to see that Kate, who had a day job, still had to completely take over the running of the house. Sport shouldn’t have had to do it all, but neither should Kate. I wonder if there was a bit of writerly wish-fulfillment going on there, even more than the gender stereotyping.

    You are right about the amount of casual cruelty, but people do learn to be more compassionate, and Harriet’s parents even seem to learn from their mistakes to some extent.


  4. Very interesting post. I’m going to the library today and will have to check out Harriet the Spy if only to see what my adult brain thinks about it. I can’t recall if I read it more than once. Certainly it was a very, very long time ago. I can only recall feeling that there was a mean atmosphere about the whole book. But it looks like there was a lot of stuff that went completely over my head.

    • The kids really are carelessly mean. That went by me because it was so much like kids acted–though in books, I liked my protagonists to be nice, and villains to be villainous.

  5. I loved Harriet the Spy hugely–if anything, I loved the second section more, because I was the world’s most gormless, clue-free, socially awkward kid*, and I completely and totally believed the nastiness of the kids toward Harriet–and Harriet’s casually cruel assessments of the people around her. She’s still at the age where other people aren’t quite real to her, and she’s an acute observer–a devastating combination. To me, as a kid, the book was about realizing that, regardless of the accuracy of your readings of other people, you don’t want those readings to get out into the wild because those people have feelings and can be hurt. And I really didn’t want to hurt other people. I still flinch a little at memories of things I did when I was a kid that I know did hurt people.

    I also loved the book because I was a New York City kid, and it felt like my life. I went to a small progressive private school (until we moved out of the city and I went to High School in rural Massachusetts), and the attitudes, the feel of the school, felt absolutely authentic to me. My school was in Greenwich Village, surrounded (then) by Italian bakeries and coffee shops, and while the Dei Santi family read as stereotypes, they also read to me like people I saw every day (my school had a relatively high percentage of Jewish kids, which led, among other things, to one of the kids in my class being told, by a tiny little girl from one of the surrounding parochial schools, that they had learned the day before that “you’re pagans and you killed Christ”).

    And I got the parents, because (like mine) they meant well–that was clear–but they didn’t understand or remember anything about being kids themselves, unlike Ole Golly, who seemed to have held on to that understanding, while being resolutely adult all the while.

    Thanks for reminding me of why I loved the book.

    *I had most of my school misery in elementary school. By the time I got to High School I was much better at dealing with my peers, and much less needy.

    • Oh, I bet the book resonated with you–having now walked New York streets, I can so see how it might have been in the sixties. And you are right about how Harriet has to learn about hurt, and compassion.

  6. Excellent write-up. Harriet the Spy was a book I wanted to like–it was the rage among kids just a little older than me when I was a kid–but I found it bewildering and uneasy-making. I think I was too young to “get” it when I read it. Harriet made me uneasy, and her life was incomprehensible to me. Older-me has no desire to read it because the social dynamics are all too painful. But I can appreciate what she represented for you and many, many others.

  7. I heard of this book after I was all grown up (cough). So much of what you said resonated with me as we are of the same generation and faced many of the same challenges being a kid, being a girl, being–well–different from the social norm. I wish I had known about Harriet and read about her. She sounds inspirational.

  8. Oh my, I really need to re-read my Harriet…. A sixth-grade teacher introduced it to our class and I re-read it on my own a few times. Years later, when I got my first job at Waldenbooks, I used most of my paychecks buying copies of childhood favorites — I think I had a fear they would disappear forever if I didn’t buy them right then. I haven’t re-read that copy yet, but have moved it all over the country with me (ND, CA, NY, TX) so I can re-read it any time I want! 😉

    • I did the same, getting a paperback copy back in ’72 that is alas falling apart now. Same crappy paper that is now being used in hardcovers, obviously not meant to last, sigh. (I have books from the 1700s whose paper is better quality than many books I paid $25 for recently)

  9. Thanks so much for this essay. I had a similar reaction to this book – there was nothing like it in the library and I’d never heard of anything else remotely like it! Most other kid’s books were either vapid or interesting in ways I didn’t identify with (the Melendys, the Little House books.) I also identified with Harriet and her notebook but it never occurred to me to compare or contrast my life with hers, or to notice that she wasn’t interested in fantasy books the way I was.

    I learned a bit about Louise Fitzhugh in Ursula Nordstrom’s collected letters to writers she edited. Fitzhugh was a lesbian and didn’t have a very happy life, but I’m glad she gave us Harriet.

    I need to re-read these. Thanks.

    • They reread pretty well.

      I loved the Melendys, I confess. Such magical lives, and so very safe.

      • I loved them too, how each of them knew what they wanted from life and pursued it. As an only child their family fascinated me.