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Louise Fitzhugh (October 5, 1928 – November 19, 1974) was an American author, born in Memphis, Tennessee. She wrote and illustrated children’s and young adult books, the best known and most beloved of which remains Harriet the Spy.
Louise’s father was well off, and her mother was from a working class background. They divorced when she was a baby and her father was awarded custody. She lived with her paternal grandparents until he remarried and was rarely allowed to see her mother. Though she seemed to have had a fairly well-adjusted childhood despite these early challenges, she gained an understanding of the loneliness and confusion that can be hallmarks of childhood.
Louise attended Miss Hutchinson’s school, then went on to attend several different colleges in the south before transferring to Bard College in New York State. Most sources state that she never finished a degree, though her New York Times obituary claims that she graduated from Bard. It may not be surprising that she studied child psychology, art, and literature, as these seem to entwine in the books she produced.
She studied art in Italy and France, and in New York City, continued her studies at the Art Students League and at Cooper Union.
A review of Harriet the Spy
The start of a career
The first major work Louise contributed to was Suzuki Beane (1961) – a beatnik spoof of Eloise. Sandra Scoppattone was the author, and Louise was the illustrator. Though the book was lightly tossed off as a parody, it was charming and well received. Today, this rare book is much sought after. Louise enjoyed a minor career as an artist and illustrator; her drawings were shown in New York galleries.
As for her personal life, Louise dated both men and women early on, but was more interested in women and had several relationships.
Harriet the Spy
Published in 1964, Harriet the Spy was about a young girl whose parents were more interested in their social life, leaving her in the care of her beloved nanny, who she called Ole Golly. The book explored independence, loneliness, and observation, as Harriet, obsessed with her notebook, recorded in blunt detail what she saw in the world around her.
Its gritty realism, rarely seen in books of its era, made Harriet the Spy controversial. It was banned outright by many schools. In other quarters, it was highly praised, and was given the New York Times Outstanding Book Award in 1964.
The legacy of Harriet the Spy rests on its setting the stage for more realistic books for kids, featuring characters grappling with real situations and problems. Harriet was seen by some as a too-flawed heroine, but to others, that was a great part of her appeal. She spied, she lied, she hurt her friends, and was just plain complicated. Those tomato sandwiches sound yummy, though! The book remains a modern classic, and Harriet is a beloved literary heroine.
You might also like: Quotes from Harriet the Spy
Posthumous Emmy, and Harriet Sequels
Louise produced two Harriet sequels. The Long Secret, published in 1965 right on the heels of Harriet the Spy. It sold well, though perhaps not as well as the original, and also courted controversy for dealing with the topic of menstruation, something that had not been done in children’s literature. After these two successful yet controversial books came out Louise seemed to hit a block. She began but didn’t finish several drafts during the next few years.
In 1969, she returned to serving as an illustrator for a book by Sandra Scoppattone — the anti-war book Bang Bang You’re Dead (1969), which came out during the height of the Vietnam war.
She had a knack for expressing what was often in a kid’s heart, as in this line from The Long Secret: “Dear Me: Why am I so different? Why am I never happy? Is everybody like this or just me? I am truly a mouse. I have no desire at all to be me.”
Fitzhugh won a posthumous Emmy in 1979 for The Tap Dance Kid, a made-for-television adaptation of her book Nobody’s Family is Going to Change.
A life cut short
Louise didn’t have as long and prolific career as she might have, as her life was cut short when she died in 1974 at age 46 of a brain aneurysm. Apparently, she had a few significant pieces of writing in various stages, including an autobiographical play, though these remained among her unfinished works. Her books remain timeless, and within their subtly subversive plots, readers find simple and relatable advice like this truism from Sport:
“If you ever get in real trouble, don’t panic. Sit down and think about it. Remember two things, always. There must be some way out of it and there must be humor in it somewhere.”
Louise Fitzhugh page on Amazon
More about Louise Fitzhugh on this site
- Louise Fitzhugh by Virginia L. Wolf
- Harriet the Spy (1996)
- Louise Fitzhugh on Wikipedia
- Adventures in Feministory: Louise Fitzhugh and Harriet the Spy
- Spying on Louise Fitzhugh
- Unapologetically Harriet, the Misfit Spy
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