Wednesday, October 5, 2011

It's Harriet the Spy Day!

Pop Quiz! Who was born on this day 83 years ago? Why, it's Louise Fitzhugh, author of the children's classic HARRIET THE SPY. In honor of her birthday, we're declaring it officially HARRIET THE SPY day. Here at Sleuths, Spies and Alibis, we'll be serving up tomato sandwiches -- Harriet's favorite! -- and offering several tributes to Harriet that speak to the enduring power of this novel, which was originally published in 1964. We'd love for you to share your own experiences with Harriet the Spy by adding them to our Comments section at the end of today's post. AND HEY, IF YOU LIKE, YOU CAN EVEN WRITE IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS JUST LIKE HARRIET DID IN HER SPY NOTEBOOKS!

If you didn't grow up with Harriet, or if she's distant to you, here's a quick summary of the novel:
Harriet M. Welsch is determined to grow up and be a famous author. In the meantime, she practices by following a regular spy route each day and writing down everything she sees in her secret notebook--including her most private and honest thoughts about her friends and classmates. Then one morning, Harriet leaves her spy notebook lying around and her classmates find it. They're not at all happy about the nasty things Harriet has said about them. Now the other sixth-graders are stealing her tomato sandwiches, forming a spy-catcher club, and writing notes of their own--all about Harriet. 

Our first Harriet tribute today comes from one of our own detectives, Diana Renn:
Like many Harriet fans, I became a writer largely because of this book. I emulated Harriet's fierce determination to become a professional author. Like Harriet, I sought to record my everyday existence and impressions on paper. I bought "spy" notebooks and established a neighborhood spy route. Unfortunately, I did not live in an exciting, densely populated neighborhood like New York City's Upper East Side. I lived in a particularly boring suburb of Seattle, on a hill populated mostly with working couples (e.g., not home) and retired people. There were houses that had lots of curtainless windows and strikingly little to see. Here are some entries from my old spy notebooks, on a very typical spy route day: 

*Mr. Carlson is sitting in his house watching TV. Again.
*The Lanes have a ladder up outside the house. This morning I saw one of them on the roof. Check on this.
*Mrs. Phillips has evidently been weeding. Which is good.

So I didn't get to dangle off of window ledges like Harriet, or creep around in dumbwaiters. But I did a fair amount of skulking around in my dull neighborhood, and an awful lot of looking. And writing. Harriet the Spy taught me to seek out mysteries in everyday life, to be alert to incongruous details in unlikely places. Reading and rereading that novel, and recording my observations, I began to train my eyes as a writer. Maybe it was a blessing that I lived in a boring neighborhood where nobody was ever home. If I couldn't find enough information to record, I'd have to make things up myself, in the form of stories. So that's what I began to do. 

Also, like Harriet, I extended my spy route to my school life. My friendships. Recording observations about peers became a fun game that quickly took a darker turn. My sixth-grade class, like Harriet's, became aware of the Notebook. Rumors circulated about what I was scribbling during and between our classes. One of my best childhood friends, another aspiring writer, acquired a notebook of her own. And then another friend did too. At first we all bonded over Harriet, enjoying our shared endeavor of scribbling in spiral-bound notebooks and keeping tabs on people. Inevitably, I suppose, we turned our powers of observation on each other. We obsessed over who had seen what in whose notebook. Who was a better writer. Who was more serious about writing. 

My old spy notebooks
And then, abruptly, we stopped. You could chalk the whole phase up to typical grade school snarkiness. But looking back at those entries now, I think something bigger had happened. We'd followed Harriet a little too far. We'd copied her plot too closely. We'd seen the power of words firsthand. This, I think, is part of the great enduring power of HARRIET THE SPY. It is fundamentally a story about a girl who learns of the power of words. How words can both hurt and heal. How there is private writing and public writing. My spy notebooks turned into private journals, spaces for observation and reflection, which I ceased to bring to school.

What can adult readers take away from this novel? What is it like to read HARRIET THE SPY years later? I asked a couple of my adult writer friends (also diehard Harriet fans) to share their thoughts on writing, friendship, and the enduring power of this orange paperback book.

From Deborah Vlock:

Like many young girls in the seventies, I read – and loved! – Harriet the Spy over and over again. I was inspired by Harriet’s charmingly obsessive snooping. I made my mother purchase a speckled composition notebook, and for about three days I took notes on just about everything – although there was not much of interest in my sleepy neighborhood in Gloversville, NY! 

My childhood experience with Harriet was neither my only nor my best. When I was in my early twenties and in grad school, my always fragile back went out, and I landed in the infirmary for a few days. Friends and fellow grad students duly visited as I lay there – aching, bored, and feeling foolish. So imagine my delight when my dear friend Eileen Donovan came by proffering a gift. In a gesture I could see her making today (and yes, she is still a dear friend, and a member of my writing group), she handed me a copy of Harriet the Spy. “Anyone in the hospital should have a copy of this,” she told me with a grin. I read it as soon as she left, and I think I loved it even more than I did ten years earlier. It certainly brightened what was otherwise a dull sojourn. 

I’d like to say Harriet the Spy inspired me to become a writer of fiction. Maybe it did; I’m not sure exactly how that happened. But my memories of Harriet did inspire me to read it and other wonderful books from my childhood to my daughter. And you know what? She begged me for a journal after we finished, just as I had done when I was her age. We both owe many hours of pleasure to that nutty, persistent girl with the notebook and the inquiring spirit. Thanks, Louise Fitzhugh!

Deb Vlock writes fiction and non-fiction. She lives in Boston with her husband, two awesome kids, and a silly Keeshond named Noo Noo.  

From Eileen Donovan Kranz

So, my friend Deb recently said:  “Do you remember when you brought me a copy of Harriet the Spy?  I had hurt my back and was in the infirmary, and you came by and left me that book.  Remember?”

No, I don’t remember.  And this provides me with a bit of mystery to solve.  You see, I don’t remember many things from the year Deb mentioned.  A car accident at the end of that year wiped away the memories of many previous events—from bad things (the accident itself!) to good things (little moments that make up friendships).

Who was I then?  And why, indeed, would I bring a children’s novel to my very learned graduate school friend?

Perhaps I was too broke, or too cheap, to bring flowers?  Perhaps I wanted to impose my world, the things that made me, on my new friend?  Perhaps I thought that Deb, lonely and isolated and in pain, would find a soul mate in Harriet?  Probably all of the above.  Yet the truest answer to why I brought Deb that book (and even who I was at the time) might lie with Harriet herself.  

Harriet, the flawed, tomato-sandwich eating, 6th grade writer was the love of my early life as a reader.  How I recognized myself in her!  And how I recognized in Fitzhugh’s writing the complexity, comedy and pain of a child’s world!  For a time in Harriet the Spy, so many things go wrong, even as hapless Harriet herself tries to make things right, that a reader would have to have a stone heart not to cry out in pain at the collateral damage of her mishaps.  Any child who has been left out can identify with Harriet’s pain.  But children who kindle the writer inside themselves can uniquely feel the thrill and danger of Harriet’s world—a world where simply writing things down can not only describe and delineate things, but can also hurt and enrage the people who read those words.  Harriet spoke to my own goal—to be a writer!—and named the danger that kept me from saying that word aloud. 

Even as an adult I carried that book with me, I now (thanks to Deb!) remember. And I now also remember that Deb isn’t the only person to whom I loaned Harriet.  Perhaps that is why so many pages are missing from my original copy that I had to buy a new (hardcover!) edition for my own daughters, once they came along.  I now think I brought Harriet the Spy to Deb, in her sick bay bed, because I needed Deb to know Harriet—a writer/sleuth/spy who is flawed but loveable, and very much like her, and very much like me.

Eileen Donovan Kranz dropped her early plans to be something dangerous (like a spy) and became, instead, a writer and a teacher of writing (where she can write and read about dangerous things whenever she likes, without as much risk). She teachers at Boston College, writes stories and essays, is at work on a young adult novel, and is the mother of two daughters who also loved Harriet.

What about you? Did you grow up with HARRIET THE SPY, or are you enjoying this novel with a young reader now? What do you think is the enduring power of this book? What do you remember most? We'd love to hear about spy routes, notebooks, book friendships, tomato sandwiches, and anything Harriet-related!

We are giving away an autographed book from our next Interrogation Room suspect! To enter the contest, simply comment on any of the Sleuths Spies and Alibis posts between Tuesday October 4 and Friday October 14. Contest closes October 14 at midnight, EST. The winner will be announced on Monday, October 17. One comment = one entry in our drawing; limit one per day. 


  1. This tributes really struck a chord with me. My own book is about two suburban middleschoolers whose own neighborhood spying goes terribly wrong, and though I did not have HARRIET THE SPY on my mind while writing, I was fueled by my childhood memories of sensing potential mysteries lurking below the surface of everyday life. It wasn't until I was in my late teens that I pulled out the notebook and pen (and by then there were no spy games!), but I share the feeling that HARRIET is in many ways about the power of writing. Thanks for sharing these.

  2. HELLO MY NAME IS DEB! lol, did not read Harriet the Spy until I starting working for Calgary Public Library in 1986, then it became a favorite book talk. Although reading it and sharing it and talking to kids who loved it and wanted to be Harriet and have spy note books was a blast-reminded me of my love of Trixie Belden (yep, I be that oooold.) Cheers and thanks for the giveaway (I'm in Canada, this is okay?)

  3. Deb, we love Canadians; no problem for the contest entry! It's so interesting to hear about adults who came to Harriet the Spy late, and it's great to hear that librarians help keep the book current. By the way, I read Trixie Belden too!

  4. Awesome post!! HARRIET THE SPY was a huge part of my childhood and I've been thinking about her a lot as I work on writing an MG mystery.


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