Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964)

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, then an unknown author, seemed to burst on the scene as an instant classic when it was published in 1964.

The children’s novel, set in Manhattan’s upper east side, stars 11-year-old Harriet M. Welsch, who wants to be a famous writer when she grows up. To prepare, she keeps a notebook in which she records details of the world around her in minute detail.

Her observations of the people in her life are funny, poignant, and sometimes cruel. When her sixth-grade classmates find and read the contents of her notebook, Harriet’s world turns upside down.

When the book was first published, critical reaction was quite positive. Harriet is relatable and though quite flawed, she’s also evidently lovable and memorable. A number of contemporary authors have reflected about how it inspired and influenced them.

“Once every few years someone writes a real children’s classic,” observed The South Bend Tribune in 1965. “Harriet the Spy is such a book … we expect that many girls will identify fully with this delightful book. We also expect that it will be a great favorite of adults.

The complexity of pre-teen social life is forgotten by most people once they’ve lived through it, but as we follow Harriet and her friends through their days at school we recognize adult social life in miniature.”

Some reviewers expressed a more mixed view. The San Francisco Examiner, for example, praised its hilarious scenes and appeal to children’s sensibilities in its 1965 review. But this review also observed, “Their elders will admire the book’s vigor and originality and the essential truth of children’s thought and action, though some will be disturbed, as we were, at the lack of warmth and kindliness of any of the characters.” 

Interestingly, what has made Harriet the Spy appealing to young readers has also made it a fixture on lists of banned books for children. Schools and parents often objected to the story’s inclusion of lying, spying, tantrums, and swearing.

Harriet, apparently, set a bad example for children, according to the gatekeepers, who neglect to take into account the love, forgiveness, and redemption that are at the heart of the story.

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Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh and Notebook

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A brief description of Harriet the Spy

This concise description of the book is from the 1964 HarperCollins edition: Harriet the Spy lives in a comfortable brownstone in the east eighties in Manhattan. She is an only child who doesn’t like many of the sixth graders in her class. Of course, there’s Sport, the writer’s son; and Janie, the incipient chemist. But Harriet can’t stand Marion Hawthorne and her crowd.

Most of all, Harriet loves her nursemaid, Ole Golly … and a secret notebook which she fills with utterly honest jottings about her parents, her classmates, and her neighbors.

Harriet is determined to grow up to be Harriet M. Welsch, the famous writer; and in order to get a head start on her career, she spends part of every day on her spy route “observing” and noting down, in her singular, caustic, comic way, everything of interest to her.

The first blow falls when Ole Golly leaves, the second when Harriet’s schoolmates find and read her notebook. Their anger and retaliation, Harriet’s unexpected responses, and the ingenious methods her teachers and parents use to help turn Harriet the Spy into Harriet M. Welsch combine to make a touching and unusual story.

Harriet the Spy has consistently been on lists of best, as well as bestselling, books for children ever since its publication.

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Sometimes you have to lie by leslie brody - louise fitzhugh biography

Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh,
Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy

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A 1965 review of Harriet the Spy

From the original review in the Chicago Tribune, January 25, 1965: Heroines in fiction come and go and most of them are soon forgotten. But not Harriet the Spy, 11-year-old whirlwind of precocity and single-minded purpose, who wants to become a famous writer. To that end, she keeps a notebook in which she records with brutal honesty her impressions of the world around her.

Everyone is grist for the mill — schoolmates, neighbors, even old Harrison Withers, who has 23 cats and makes bird cages, and Mrs. Plumber, who lolls in bed all day phoning friends and eating candy. Harriet’s parents, well-meaning but somewhat neglectful, are unaware of her projects.

Harriet feels bereft. Her notebook falls into her classmates’ hands, and all of them, including her two — and only — friends, Janie and Sport, turn on her with youthful ferocity. Her life is made almost unbearable.

This is a brilliantly written, unsparingly realistic story, a superb portrait of an unusual child. Harriet, spying from a dumbwaiter or through a skylight, or practicing being an onion for the Christmas pageant, is extremely funny. She is pathetic in her loneliness for Ole Golly, mean in her observations, overly intense, and with all her faults somehow appealing.

To adults, Harriet and her schoolmates may seem rather scary. But young readers will find Harriet and her adventures fascinating and will be glad at how things work out in the end.

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