Classic MG Discussion: Harriet the Spy

September 26, 2014 2014, classics, historical, readalong, Wendy 48

Harriet the Spy

Hello, dear readers! It’s time for our discussion of Harriet the Spy, which is perfect since it’s the book’s 50th anniversary this year. We’re so pleased that so many of you have been participating in our classics challenge, though we have to apologize again for being so behind on answering comments and visiting your review posts. Once summer was over we’d hoped things would slow down, but it’s still pretty busy around here, though we’re doing our best to get back on track.

In any case, we’re very excited about this month’s book–we hope you enjoyed this read/re-read as much as we did!

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Wendy: Harriet M. Welsch is a perfectly dreadful child and I love her to pieces! This is one of my favorite books of all time, and she is a child so dear to my heart. She is so terribly suspicious and thinks awful things about the people around her. As an adult, I understand her even more, and love her for all the things she is and all the things she’s lacking.

Kim: I remember I read this as a kid and I remember that I LOVED it. But I had absolutely no memories of anything that actually happened. The only vague recollection I had was at some point there was a dumbwaiter involved and I found that delightful. Though, honestly, given my love of tomato sandwiches I’m not sure why I didn’t remember that aspect! But anyway, my goodness. With this read-through I was absolutely appalled at Harriet! She’s so mean! I must’ve understood this much more as a kid since I really did love this book. But as an adult I just gape at her unkind observations. I mean, I appreciate that she’s a flawed, realistic character, but my heart actually hurt for all the people Harriet was remarking upon. (If you can’t tell I am the very sensitive sort) However, I did also find her very endearing. And certainly there are ways I could afford be more like Harriet.

Wendy: From what I understand, this book caused a bit of a kerfuffle when it was published, because children in books were, for the most part, overall very nice before she came along. I think what sets Harriet apart from the typical “mean girl” is that I view her curiosity and her observations as part of her attempt to understand the world she’s living in.  A certain degree of projecting her own loneliness and fear is also present in her journal entries. And while she thinks these terrible things all the time, she never acts upon them, at least until she’s pushed into it later on.

This comes back to a conversation the two of us had recently about how absolutely nice you are, though, Kim. I am extremely sarcastic and snarky in my head most of the time, as is my husband. We try to be very kind in our actual dealings with people, though, so with that dichotomy in mind, I have an easier time accepting her for who she is than you, I think. I hope that Harriet grows up and continues to save her pointy observations for her own amusement and ponderings, but as Ole Golly advised her, learns to be more gentle with those “white lies” when she talks to people.

Layla: I don’t think I mind Harriet’s meanness so much. If it came from a place of malice, maybe I would? But it seems like Harriet thinks of herself as someone’s who’s simply observing the world around her – she doesn’t yet understand that it’s impossible to be a totally objective observer, and thinks that she’s merely relating the objective truth about people. Which is why she doesn’t get why they’re mad at her, and why she kind of has to be led through a process of understanding that by her parents and her classmates. (Like when they pass around a note that says untrue things about her, and she’s like, “This is obviously crazytown and everyone is insane. Why would someone write something that isn’t *true*?”) She doesn’t know yet that her observations indicate just as much about her as they do the world around her. And I also like that she’s a little mean especially given the time period – though it’s still so hard for girls to get permission to be things other than nice, you know?

Harriet the SpyWendy:  Right, I don’t think she’s writing to be unkind. And her notebook is something that’s fiercely private to her.

Layla: And, hello, sexism in general. When do we complain that our male protagonists aren’t nice enough? House? Walter White? Rust Cohle?

Wendy: I have seen readers say that they don’t like Harriet becomes she’s not nice for sure. What I find really interesting is the lack of insight/understanding into characters that are hurting or in need of something, even though in most cases the author does lay the groundwork for that. Fictional assholes or sociopaths are much more readily accepted–and often admired–if they’re men than women.

Layla: What do you think of this Salon article? I don’t agree with all of it, but I like this bit: “All children are spies, constantly surveilling adults for the information they need to figure out what’s really going on and how to grow up themselves.”

Wendy: That goes into the whole “Harriet is mean” thing. I’m going to agree with Gregory Maguire, who says that she’s honest, but I don’t think she’s necessarily mean. I guess I’m thinking of the word defined as “malicious,” though I suppose you could say that her observations fit the definition if you’re thinking of “small-minded.” But that’s what journaling is for, to work out all those petty insecurities and make sense of your day and the world you live in. I think a lot of us have these kinds of thoughts that we’d be terribly embarrassed to have someone else know, but to me, the important thing is that a person doesn’t act upon it. She later does because she feels cornered and defensive, but I don’t think she’s a gossipy person with evil intent.

Layla: I remember loving this novel to pieces as a kid. I have such vivid memories of reading it for the first time on an airplane, with my parents. There was a lot I identified with as a child (insofar as I played games like Town! and journaled obsessively! & ate the same sandwich every day. Alas, unlike Harriet, I did not get cake every day, which bums me out). Anyway. Twenty years out from that … I still really like Harriet, & I’m struck (as I was not originally) at how realistic and how energetic her voice in the narrative is (she stomps! she screeches! she is shooed out of dumbwaiters!).

Wendy:  I was pretty obsessed with mysteries and detective-like behavior at this age, due to Nancy Drew and The Three Investigators and Trixie Belden and countless other books. Harriet’s spying is so different, though, because it’s observing everything around her. This outward focus and allowing readers to draw their own conclusions is unusual for middle grade books, I think. Especially now, everything has to be explained in great detail now to make sure you don’t miss the point.

I am immensely fond of composition books because of Harriet. I went through a tomato sandwich phase as well, although I had to put lemon pepper on mine. I wish I had milk and cake every day at 3:40, though.

Layla: Desire for cake … seconded.

Kim: I had cake for breakfast today so that’s exciting. Can I also bring up THE EGG CREAMS? I have never had an egg cream but they sound delicious.

Wendy:  I haven’t had cake in months and it’s making me very grumpy. Kim, I adored the sound of egg creams as a child because I read so many books set in the 50s, but instead of tasting like a chocolate malt or something, it’s actually a pretty disgusting concoction of soda water, syrup, and milk.

Kim: That sounds terrible and my dreams have been shattered.

Layla:  I’ve never eaten egg creams because I hate the idea of having eggs in my drinks and I never realized eggs weren’t involved. It took me YEARS to drink eggnog. But egg creams sound delicious to me.

Wendy: Let it live in your fantasies, ladies. It’s fascinating that we get this glimpse into this privileged life that Harriet lives in Manhattan. She’s clearly a child from a wealthy family, but I like that she’s allowed to be so weird and normal. We get bits and pieces of the setting and the situations of other adults, but it’s filtered through Harriet’s eyes, so you have to infer quite a bit.

Harriet the SpyKim:  I took one look at the map and realized Harriet lives in Yorkville! My best friend used to live there until recently so it was fun to recognize all those street names while reading. :) But yeah, I absolutely loved the setting. To me it’s like peeking into a fantasy world. And not only because it’s the glamorous Upper East Side but is also in the past.

Wendy: I really want to visit some of these locations the next time I’m in New York! Hey, is Miss Whitehead related to Pinky Whitehead? I don’t think it ever says so explicitly, but how many Whiteheads can there be at one school?

Layla:  I never thought of that! I bet they’re related. I bet Harriet could make up a great story about this. Would that we were more like her.

Kim: I just really hate the name Pinky Whitehead. It’s so unpleasant.

Wendy: He sounds like a white lab rat with pink eyes.

Layla:  To me he sounds like a pimple. I think Harriet would agree.

Wendy:  What did you think of Mr. and Mrs. Welsch? Although they are largely absent in some ways, like the never-ending round of cocktail parties and leaving her with her nurse and the cook all the time, they’re also quite loving and natural with her, even though she’s so precocious and difficult. I enjoyed the way her parents spoke to her with humor, but never condescension, and they made an effort to be tactful and encouraging as well. But I was still astonished by her mother’s flying protectiveness of Harriet when she thinks she is in danger. That was a glorious scene. MISS GOLLY, I AM AMAZED.

Layla: I don’t remember feeling this way as a child, but as an adult – I want the adults in Harriet’s life to be better to and for her. I like the way they engage with her when they engage with her, but it also seems like they don’t know her at all. And they seem the tiniest bit neglectful to me. I mean, Ole Golly convinces her to take dance lessons by speaking to her in a language she understands (this is how you become a SUPER SPY). And it’s only after Ole Golly leaves that they improve for me – before that, they’re like, “Oh, whatever would we do without Miss Golly? She is MAGIC!” when, no, she’s not magic, she’s just actually listening to Harriet. I do feel like her parents become more likable in that respect as the story continues, they deal well with the loss of the journal and its aftermath.

Kim:  I actually weirdly liked her parents? I mean, they clearly were a bit on the neglectful side but my heart just melted in the scene where Harriet is insisting she’ll punch some kid and her mother affectionately teases her with a back and forth of “You will not” “Will too” and then tickles her. I mean, probably my first reaction wouldn’t be to tease my kid if they were threatening violence against a classmate, but I really thought it was sweet here. I also thought that the book just realistically portrayed the natural chasm between parent and child. Yeah, Harriet’s parents are absent at times and they make missteps with her but so do all parents.

Wendy: I was surprised, actually, upon this reread to discover how much I liked her parents as well. I’m going to generalize here, but a lot of very wealthy people I know/have met have relationships not unlike this with their children, in that they are dropped off with minders and the adults continue to live their lives almost as  if they were still childless. But there is a real affection there, too, and Harriet seems to feel love and trust in them. It’s clear they’re also absent much of the time, of course, and we could probably psychoanalyze her attachment to Ole Golly as a stand-in parent for hours on end. I read a fascinating article a few years ago about children of wealth who, as adults, admitted to being much closer to their caregivers than they were to their own mothers–I wish I could find it! I think there’s at least some warmth and love in the Welsch household, even if there isn’t as much attention as she clearly needs. The number of times she says she takes comfort in routine and ordinary things speaks volumes about her need for order and discipline–you have usually, mostly grown out of that by this stage, I think, but she’s a bit stuck because of the family dynamic. As painful as it is, Ole Golly leaving was the best thing for her, and for the family unit, in the long run.

Harriet the SpyAlso, I love love love that her father rolls into a ball on the floor and pretends to be an onion with her. That is my favorite scene in a book full of favorite scenes. How awesome are these crude illustrations, too? Done by the author and still used after all these years!

Layla:  That episode is pretty great. My favorite scene is the drama teacher’s speech:

“I want you to feel that one morning you woke up as one of these vegetables, one of these dear vegetables, nestling in the earth … waiting for that glorious moment when you will be …”

“Eaten,” Harriet whispered to Sport.

Bahaha. Oh, Harriet.

Also, the illustrations are delightful.

Kim:  The illustrations are fantastic. So evocative. Ugh, ugh, ugh. I really have a difficult time handling confrontation or having people mad at me for any reason so the illustration of the classmates with Harriet’s notebook…actual chills. A Kim Nightmare Scenario. And there’s this one really sad illustration of Sport. So many forlorn Sport feels. Oh also, I found the illustration of Harrison Withers to be really, really touching. There was something so tender about it.

Wendy: This has got to be one of the only books that features a child going to a psychiatrist in a realistic setting as well. I have such an appreciation for the way Harriet’s hysterics are written—everything feels so dramatic and life-changing at that age, and yet the adults in her life are pretty unflappable. No one’s wringing their hands over her behavior–aside from the cook, that is.

Layla: Harriet’s response to having her notebook lost is also so well-written. She’s so consistently stubborn in her pursuit of the truth and in her self-identification as a spy.

Kim: Reading Harriet’s ordeal was a very trying experience for me! I was feeling it all right along with her so all of her reactions and acting out felt very understandable. If I’ve seriously messed up with just one person I want to climb in bed and stay there so I can’t imagine a classroom full. I love that the author had the skill to write in that emotionally vulnerable/unstable place and make it seem so natural and relatable.

Layla:  I also like that she’s like, “Well, maybe I should just switch schools.” I so remember that feeling from childhood – that everything is ruined FOREVER and that you’re never going to be able to make things right, so we’ll salt the fields and move on then, shall we?

Wendy: And now we have to talk about Ole Golly. Miss Golly! Catherine Golly! The scene when Harriet follows her on her date and she sees her behaving entirely unlike the stern, sensible nurse she knows was fantastic. It’s hilarious how nasty she is to poor Mr. Waldenstein at first, but then the whole date and its aftermath were so touching.

Layla:  “IF SHE FEELS THAT WAY SHE CAN JOLLY WELL TAKE ME TO THE MOVIES SOMETIME.”

harriet the spy manicure

Kim’s HARRIET THE SPY manicure!

Wendy:  Hah hah hah, I LOVE IT. I’ve read this book dozens of times, but it was only this most recent reading that made me realize that this is sort of the American version of Mary Poppins. No-nonsense nanny, bright children, parents who need to pay a little more attention, and having to grow up. The “profound shock” Harriet feels when Ole Golly says she doesn’t need a nurse anymore felt so recognizable and scary, though I can’t pinpoint a similar specific incident for myself. I just know the feeling.

Kim:  Ole Golly leaving was the first heart wrench this book gave me (though they were far from over!) It was super weird she took Harriet to see her mother and I did not understand at all what was going on there. And yes, she was way too harsh with the “I’m not missing you. Gone is gone.” stuff. That’s just not necessary! But I loved this line: “Life is a struggle and a good spy goes in there and fights.”

Layla: I like Ole Golly, but. That scene at the beginning of the book when she takes Harriet to visit her mother is kind of bizarre. And it’s our first introduction to her as a character. Her desire that Harriet understand that not everyone lives in a huge house with servants? Totally legit. But the event itself is … kind of weird. Harriet says that she “felt like something in a zoo,” but it feels almost like Ole Golly’s mother is. Ole Golly decides (very suddenly) that Harriet needs to see how Mrs. Golly lives and then she shows up like, “Check out the room, children, how’s the tea,” and she drops a literary quote or two and then insults her mother: “Behold a woman who never had any interest in anyone else, nor in any book, nor in any school, nor in any way of life, but has lived her whole life in this room, eating and sleeping and waiting to die.” Harsh. I know that there’s sadness and pain there, but it’s an oddly cruel thing to say – and a weird emotional moment to expose Harriet to without any sort of context. (And it seems like there’s this assumption that she’s uneducated and just doesn’t understand, and I don’t know, something about the scene just rubs me the wrong way.) Anyway. It’s a weird scene. Why is it in here? Halp.

Wendy:  I liked the inclusion of that scene, but agree that it’s odd. And oddly placed. There’s a lot of emotion here and clearly something behind the inclusion of this anecdote, and I’d be very interested in knowing what that was. I don’t think it needed a great deal more explanation, as I recall many odd things that I observed as a child that I still don’t understand as an adult, but a little more context would certainly have given it more impact.

Layla: Also: Ole Golly’s letter to Harriet at the end of the book? The advice about the journal is great; I love that she says:

“Remember that writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.”

That’s lovely. But gah, the bit Kim mentioned and the sign off, “No more nonsense”? I know it’s good advice – don’t wallow, remember the good times – but Harriet’s eleven! And maybe it’s okay to miss people and be sad. Like, Ole Golly is being loving but would it kill you to tell Harriet that you miss her?

Wendy:  I know. The no-nonsense approach is great in fiction, but it would be hard to take in real life. But every time I read this, I marvel all over again at the indelible character sketches and perfect pacing and plotting. And it’s so flipping funny! Her dramatic all-caps and screaming make me laugh every single time. It also has some touching moments, but the emotions are mostly of the  unsentimental type–again, like Mary Poppins. Man, I really want to bump that one up our classics queue for comparison now.

Layla: The character sketches are the best! I’m impressed by how great the secondary characters are. JANIE. HARRISON WITHERS. SPORT. Oh my god. Sport. Seriously. All the feels. This is Harriet’s show, but there is so much else to love here, too. I’d forgotten how funny this book was. Did you think children found it funny? Do you remember finding it funny when you first read it? Or is it a cleverer “kids say the darndest things” – with more affection and wit and intelligence?

Wendy:  Oh, I laughed at this book as a kid. But I definitely notice its cleverness more as an adult.

Layla: Yeh, same here. Also, though – there are so many moments in the books where bah, the book strikes such a fine balance between funny and poignant. The scene where the Robinsons get that huge baby statue! Or dude with the 26 cats, Harrison Withers!

Kim: I find myself rather attached to Harrison Withers. THEY TOOK HIS CATS AND I’M SO SAD EVEN THOUGH HE REALLY SHOULDN’T HAVE ALL THOSE CATS. But man, the way Harriet observes his loneliness and anguish really poked at my heart.

Layla: Although I love the description of Harrison Withers eating a more healthy diet and petting his one disdainful kitten, I’m kind of worried that this one kitten is going to become 26 cats again.

Harriet the Spy

Wendy:  This NPR story on Harriet the Spy is really interesting. It says “although Harriet’s sexuality is never touched on in the book, her boy’s clothes and bravado sent a message to some kids who felt different and didn’t know why.” Apparently Louise Fitzhugh, who tragically died in her forties of an aneurysm, was gay.

Layla:  Thanks for posting this article, Wendy. To this end, in an interview with the New York Times, Alison Bechdel said that Harriet the Spy had the greatest impact on her as a child, and was the book that made her most want to write (and she picks up on the compulsiveness of Harriet’s writing, which really came through for me on the re-read this time as well). Anyway, I also wonder if Harriet’s queer aesthetic was an influence, too.

Wendy:  I can’t believe that it never even occurred to me until reading that article. Not fitting in and yearning for stability are easy to identify with for any child, but this opens up a whole other layer to this book that I never considered. The next time I reread this, it’s going to be with new eyes. Here’s another interesting article from The Horn Book on the queer subtext in the book and defiance of gender stereotypes–there’s a bit more about the author, as well as some musings on Harriet’s cross-dressing and the symbolism of The Boy with the Purple Socks.

Layla: What do you think Harriet learns, if anything? Does her writing becomes kinder? Or do you think she just does a better job of keeping it safe? Does she just learn how to navigate people’s emotions differently; i.e, understand that other people have feelings and independent emotional lives? What changes for her when she starts to write to share with other people rather than only chronicling observations for herself? The content isn’t pointed observations about her fellow students anymore, but she still says mean things about Franca Dei Santi and that old rich lady.

It’s kind of great that Harriet isn’t really shamed for her writing – so yes, she’s socially ostracized, and that’s punishment, but like … I think it’s kind of wonderful that the psychiatrist / her parents / the school find a way to channel her energies into something productive and creative.)

Wendy: Yes, I’m impressed that the adults never once say “You terrible child, how can you have these thoughts?” and take the notebook away from her for good. And so cool that they found a way to turn her interest into something positive!

I think Harriet will definitely do a better job at keeping her writing safe–she’s learned her lesson there! I think she already knows through her spying that the people have fascinating lives that are secretive and mundane and mysterious, and has already discovered emotional complexities she hadn’t considered. Part of the process of growing up is understanding that, and having some measure of compassion for all the other people struggling along around you, though it’s unrealistic to expect someone to never have uncharitable thoughts. Most of us are not that saintly, and I don’t think Harriet is ever going to be a warm fuzzy overflowing with the milk of human kindness, but honestly–that’s just how I like her.

Harriet the Spy

Final ratings?

Wendy:  Obviously, 5 stars for me. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know Harriet, and I’m grateful I will never have to be without her. Have you all read the sequels? I’ve read The Long Secret and Sport, and then one of the commissioned ones by another writer (it’s not as awful as you might think), though I’ve had the second sitting in my Amazon cart for literally years because I’m afraid to see what happens.

Kim: Oh 5 stars even though I’m so scandalized by Harriet’s mean notes! And I didn’t even know there were sequels! I’ll read anything that has Sport in it.

Layla:  5 stars! Loved this book as a kid; loved it in different ways (but just as much) as an adult. A++, would read again and give to all children, ever, to read. I have not read the sequels, but now I want to. ALSO. There was an unpublished and now LOST manuscript about two girls falling in love that she wrote in the 1960s? AHHHHH. I bet that is the great f/f YA that we’ve all been waiting for.

Wendy: I do believe this is the first time we’ve all agreed on a rating–and it’s 5 stars nonetheless. Hooray! I’m so very sad about that lost manuscript, and that we got so few books from her before she died, though. :(

On a happier note, long ago, I used to host book-related crafts and this is the Harriet the Spy paper doll a friend drew for me. Isn’t it awesome? Notice the composition book watermark on letter and her spy clothes! I love the letter that accompanied it just as much.

harriet the spy paper doll vine-divider-final

September Readalong: Animorphs #1 – 3!

Did you know that one of Katherine Applegate’s earliest books was the popular Animorphs series? She, of course, won the Newbery for The One and Only Ivan, but she also wrote Animorphs under the name K.A. Applegate with her husband, Michael Grant, the author of the Gone series!

Kim’s hosting a readalong of the first three books for our October discussion. She says the books are super short (it’ll take you the same amount of time to read these as one Harriet book, for example) and the first three books are essentially a 3 part arc in themselves that set up the rest of the series.

Title: Animorphs: The Invasion, The Visitor, The Encounter
Author: K.A. Applegate
Discussion Date: Friday, October 31st
Hashtag: #tmgreadalong

Sometimes weird things happen to people. Ask Jake. He may tell you about the night he and his friends saw the strange light in the sky. He may even tell you about what happened when they realized the “light” was only a plan — from another planet. Here’s where Jake’s story gets a little weird. It’s where they’re told that the human race is under attack — and given the chance to fight back.

Now Jake, Rachel, Cassie, Tobias, and Marco have the power to morph into any animal they choose. And they must use that power to outsmart an evil that is greater than anything the world has ever seen…

From Kim:

I wanted to reread these books out of a deep nostalgic longing. They’re the reason I ever got into science fiction. As a kid I had never read anything like it before! High action, suspense, betrayal, truly heartbreaking loss and grief and many mature themes and subjects nevertheless handled in a way that never went above my head as a kid. It’s also notable for the fully realized diverse cast of characters and its progressive values. This recent write up on Tor really beautifully lays out the series and why it’s still important.

The Readalong is newbie-friendly and encouraged! We’ll only discuss the first three.

animorphsOur apologies for switching up the October selection, by the way–it was just too hard to find copies of Down a Dark Hall that weren’t modernized with hideous cell phones and flat-screen TVs. Because they’re what every gothic novel needs, huh? Grrrrr.

But Kim’s readalong looks to be a lot of fun, so do join in!

If you’d like to get a head start on November’s book, we’ll be reading Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder. As the weather cools down, I think it’s time for us to enjoy big apple pies and popcorn by the fire.

Photographs are by Wendy and Kim!

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So tell us! Are you a fan of the excitable Harriet M. Welsch? Did your perceptions of her or the book change as an adult reader?

Hopefully you’re doing well on your 2014 classics challenge, too! Don’t forget that you’ll need to read/review 8 books before the end of the year. We went into that a bit more at the end of last month’s discussion, along with a preview of one of the prizes for one of our participants.

Wendy signature teal

 

 

 

 

48 Responses to “Classic MG Discussion: Harriet the Spy”

  1. bethany

    I’m caught up now! I tweeted with Wendy last night but I was surprised by how much I loved HARRIET (after reading only Book One). Having read the whole book (and missing Ole Golly), the rest of the book was less charming and sweet, but no less GOOD.

    She IS mean! But like one of the tributes mentions — it’s not about her being mean as much as it is being brutally, brutally honest (without the filter of adulthood and knowing what’s “socially acceptable” to express).

    (PS: I love that Wendy points out that Kim is the “nice one” of TMG hehe)

    CAKE EVERYDAY PLEASE. and I need to figure out what in the world an egg cream is… because Wendy’s description is pretty nasty-sounding. I wonder if it’s because our generation is spoiled with lots of SUPER sweet drinks and treats… (though not cake everyday) <- that should be a bakery name. Cake Everyday.

    And her parents! They are interesting… clearly wealthy–is this the "latchkey" generation? It's kind of a random thought, but it does make me think–parents should be parents (if they can…) and when you introduce another parent-like figure (a nurse, nanny, etc)-parents kind of lose some of their parent-ness…

    Annnnd whoop! I wrote that blurb before reading ahead–and seeing Wendy's longer comments about Harriet's parents/caretakers. Totally agree–Ole Golly couldn't be there forever! But, I do think her parents could have and should have been a little more cognizant that by losing her nurse, they would need to step in abit, you know? And that a cook isn't a good replacement… (good job to the cook for standing up for herself! haha)

    But that line when Harriet asks her mom "What do YOU do" and her mom goes "A lot of unseen, underappreciated things" – I chuckled. Life of a parent, right??

    And related (kind of) — I thought the description of a "high-pressure job" was SO apt! Apparently those existed before and still exist now — "It means he’s not allowed to do exactly what he wants with the job, and what he is allowed to do he isn’t given enough time to do it in." — story of our lives, right? Mr. Waldenstein's a bit of a rebel in how he quit his previous career for a simpler life… such an interesting layer on a character that otherwise could have been left really simple and peripheral.

    I had NO IDEA Animorphs was written by who they were written by! Interestinggggg. Halloween it is!
    bethany recently posted…Unintentional Blog Break & Visiting the 50 States

  2. Enbrethiliel

    +JMJ+

    This was so much fun to read! I’m glad that it was so long and detailed, too, but now it makes me want to be long and detailed in my comment as well. And that would take all weekend! LOL!

    I’ve read Harriet the Spy at least twice: once as a pre-teen and then again as an older teenager. (If there were other times–and there might have been, since I was a huge rereader as a youth and I have strong memories of scenes in this book–they don’t really stand out to me.) Both times, I felt disappointed in the story, for the same two reasons. The first is that I was put off by Harriet’s insensitivity and meanness. Take her assessment of Franca, who goes to the park to talk to the pigeons: “She doesn’t have a good time at home because everyone knows how dumb she is and doesn’t talk to her.” How awful, aye?

    But this makes me appreciate Wendy’s point that Harriet is actually projecting her own feelings onto others. Far from being an impartial observer, she sees everyone through the lens of her own circumstances. If we think about it–and I see that you ladies have (LOL!)–Harriet herself doesn’t have a good time at home because nobody except Ole Golly talks to her . . . and perhaps she secretly feels that it’s because her parents and the cook think that she is dumb. =(

    And Harriet doesn’t seem to understand how she looks to others. I particularly recall her bafflement at older people’s reactions to her–not just adults, but also teenagers. Now, I actually experienced this when I was in the third grade: something I said amused some sixth-graders so much that they brought their friends around to see me the next day. LOL! But I couldn’t have told you then why they found me funny and I can only guess now. At the end, though, does Harriet have more self-awareness? Or as Layla asks here, does Harriet actually learn something or change her writing for the better? Both major times I read the novel, I would have answered no–and that’s what broke it for me. But deep change can take time; perhaps Louise Fitzhugh thought it would be enough to show us the beginning, instead of spelling everything out. Besides, it might have taken several years for the seeds planted here to bear literary fruit!

    Speaking of the resolution, it’s the second reason I didn’t like Harriet the Spy both times. Although it was wrong of others to steal her notebook and spread her private thoughts around, I thought it was too much for her to disown those thoughts at the end and to call them “lies.” For they weren’t really lies; they were honest, albeit narrow-minded and biased, observations of people. Then again, this may be the point: Harriet’s printing of that retraction and Sport and Jenny’s acceptance of it are examples of white lies in action. Those two times I read Harriet the Spy, what I wanted for the ending was a big, emotional scene in which everyone gets to be honest with each other and to see themselves a bit more clearly in the process. (Cliched, I know! =P) Or maybe just a private moment in which Harriet can see how wrong she was about others: a scene that shatters one assumption that she has made and leads her to question the others. And just for balance, another scene in which someone who was in denial can admit that Harriet got something right! So I was especially unsatisfied with the moral that sometimes you have to lie.

    But now I see that the irony of it is that figuring out what things have to be held back and hidden under white lies is also a way to learn sensitivity and empathy. And Harriet is just at the beginning; we don’t see any more of the process.

    I also see that I’ve “doing a Harriet” here, projecting my own issues onto her. For I personally wouldn’t be satisfied with a friendship in which I had to conceal my thoughts from others–and in fact, I ended a friendship of fifteen years because my former friend and I kept arguing about religion and politics, and I didn’t want to go the “white lies” route. On the other hand, I do have a “filter” when I talk to my remaining friends. So I do accept the idea in part. But now I wonder, given that Louise Fitzhugh was gay, whether she herself was satisfied with her moral and her ending. Was she letting Harriet make the best of a bad situation only because that was what she had to do–and did she feel bittersweet about resolving the story that way?

  3. Leandra Wallace

    Gah- I love this post so much. You ladies are awesome. One, the nails: The green were lovely and the ones modeled after the book? Made my book nerd heart happy. And this line: Kim: That sounds terrible and my dreams have been shattered. Totally made me laugh out loud. And I agree, yuck! And I think I read Harriet the Spy when I was young, but I clearly need to revisit it.
    Leandra Wallace recently posted…SWAG Giveaway!

  4. Sarah C.

    I had actually never read Harriet the Spy before this and I really liked it. I’m not quite sure why I never read it as a child, as I, like Harriet, enjoyed snooping/spying and I feel quite sure I would have enjoyed the book. I loved Harriet and her love of routine and everything being just so and in her control. I think that was what struck me most about the book. When Ole Golley leaves, Harriet’s secure little world crumbles and the person who loves her the most (as she perceives it) is gone. And she has to learn to adapt and “grow up,” especially after her friends read her notebook; she learns that most important lesson of forbearing those around us, so that they will do the same for us.

    And I loved the humor in the book; I laughed aloud multiple times! And especially the scene Layla quoted, about imagining what it’s like to be a vegetable. I kept re-reading it, it was so funny!

    Thank you for choosing this book and for your wonderful discussion!
    Sarah C. recently posted…Review: Forever

    • Layla

      I’m really glad that you were able to read Harriet eventually, even if you didn’t get to it as a child – maybe it was for your own good anyway? You could have ended up in a dumbwaiter or something.

      Yeah, I was struck by that, too! Her need to eat the same sandwich every day, her physical and emotional discomfort when her notebook gets taken away from her, her compulsive need to write things down when they’re happening – bah, I can totally relate to that. It reminded me of how weird and uncomfortable it is to be a child living in a world where you don’t know what the rules are. And how much you want to have control over the verrrryyy limited things you have control over. (Of course I’m projecting my own experiences onto Harriet, though.)

      Hahaha. I remember sitting in the kitchen and reading that scene out loud to my mother and thinking it was just the funniest thing ever. I’m glad you agree!
      Layla recently posted…Classic MG Discussion: Harriet the Spy

    • Layla

      Yay! I know. I’d forgotten how much fun Harriet is, too.

      Ooh, I just went and read your blog post. I’ve never read anything by Diana Wynne Jones and am going to check the local library, ASAP. Also, can I say that I think it’s DELIGHTFUL that Robin McKinley sent you that letter? And how cool it is that you wrote to her? Um, amazing. She was also my favorite novelist (or at least top five! I also have a hard time with favorites) when I was growing up. By that point she had a webpage that I read relentlessly and repetitively. Anyway. You and Robin McKinley both are making me feel like reading Charmed Life; I do have a weakness for mean girls in literature.
      Layla recently posted…Classic MG Discussion: Harriet the Spy

  5. Brenda

    As a kid reading Harriet The Spy I loved how she wrote all her observations in her journal. I did something similar, but never carried it around with me. It was more of a diary. I also found the way she acted and talked to her parents so funny. Reading this as an adult, I see so many things that I overlooked at the time. I don’t see Harriet as being mean, I think she took what Ole Golly told her to heart and was really just trying to write down all her observations. In some ways I think it was her way of processing things. Animorphs will be a new read for me, and I can’t recall if I’ve ever read Farmer Boy. I certainly must have, but I’m drawing a blank on it at the moment. Somehow Little House on The Prairie and The Long Winter stand out to me more. Great discussion, as always I’ve learned so much!
    Brenda recently posted…Classic Middle Grade Review: Harriet The Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

    • Layla

      Haha, that’s wonderful! Did you do this in response to reading Harriet the Spy or did you come to it on your own? (Also, wouldn’t it be great if you could find that?)

      I agree – it does seem like Harriet is just trying to process the world around her. (Although I am not a therapist nor do I play one on TV, I think it’s hard to be a kid when you’re figuring out how this weird adult world works.) She doesn’t mean to be mean – she wasn’t going to show those things to other people, and also doesn’t maybe understand the difference between being honest and being hurtful.

      I’ve never read Animorphs either and am excite. I don’t remember Little House on the Prairie, but I do vaguely remember The Long Winter. Whatever! I’m excited to return to Laura Ingalls Wilder anyway.
      Layla recently posted…Classic MG Discussion: Harriet the Spy

      • Brenda

        The inspiration for the diary actually came from my Grandfather while we were living in Germany. He used to carry a journal that was leather bound to mark his appointments (places like the bank, shops etc. gave out these journals that were more like a calendar than anything else.) The nice thing was that each page was one day with lots of free space and in the corners of the page you could tear off a strip to mark your spot, kinda like a bookmark. Unfortunately, I think all these books I had are gone now.
        Brenda recently posted…Classic Middle Grade Review: Harriet The Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

  6. Pili

    I’m so happy I managed to finish the book today in time to join the conversation!
    This was my first time reading Harriet and I loved that it was not one of those books full of perfect children that are always nice and wonderful! Those “prayers, chores and perfectly behaved” kids do irk me quite a lot nowadays. So in that respect Harriet is a breeze of fresh air, even if I struggled a bit with understanding her. I guess I was a much nicer kid when I was her age and even when I did write my journals I was always more instrospective and didn’t made that many remarks about other people. I think the book reflects very well on a certain selfishness we all have, feeling entitled to our opinions and thinking that what we do is fine but don’t like it when it’s turned on us. As far as Harriet story goes, I’m not sure she gets to see exactly what was wrong about her comments and how she could be hurting others as they later hurt her. But at 11 I’m sure empathy is not something you can explain to a kid that doesn’t want to go to school.

    I really felt for her cause after Ole Golly left she was in a house where there was no lack of affection for her, but there was also not a relationship of trust and support built for her, it felt like her parents really don’t know her and she feels like she doesn’t have anyone to talk about what she’s done and what she’s going through. I’m glad that at least they just didn’t decide to take her notebooks from her and ban her to write or go out to spy or anything like that, instead they tried to give her a different way and reason to write.

    I still haven’t written by review, that will be up on the blog tomorrow, but reading this always helps me discover and ponder on the books more, and I loved the mentions of the queer subtext that could have been missed, but I was glad that Harriet was made different, preferring her spy clothes to more regular girl clothes. I also wondered at some point if Harriet’s need for routine and dislike of change and high intelligence could also be linked to some aspect of autism spectrum.

    Great pick this one ladies, and now I’m going to Amazon to get me the Animorphs books!
    Pili recently posted…Friday Reads: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon!!!

    • Wendy Darling

      Piiiiiilllllliiiiii. I’m happy you finished in time, too!

      Harriet is a difficult child for sure. I think she is hard to understand if you’re a thoroughly nice person yourself and never have any nasty thoughts about anybody, hah. You and Kim make me feel a teensy bit ashamed of myself for understanding and relating to Harriet so well, though I assure you that thinking pointy thoughts does not mean that you are a terrible person. Especially at that age, when you’re trying to figure things out. Hopefully she grows up to be more judicious about what she focuses her attention on in the future, though like you, I think she probably has awhile to work on that. But I like that it’s realistic in that sense, and the author doesn’t tie things up neatly or make Harriet conform to standards in the end.

      And omg, Pili. That’s such an interesting point re: possible autism spectrum, particularly Aspergers, perhaps? The repetitive behaviors, intense focus on her notebooks, unusual social interactions…I don’t know too much about it, but as soon as I read that, something clicked for me, too. It seems to make so much sense! I wonder if your theory is right. I wish the author were around to answer questions (my goodness, what would Louise Fitzhugh do with Twitter!), or that there was more material readily available to read about her.

      I’ve already learned so much through this discussion, though–I can’t believe that there are so many facets to this book that I hadn’t considered before. Thank you so much for the insightful observations, and, as always, for joining the discussion! I look forward to reading your review when it’s posted.

      • Pili

        Don’t worry Wendy, I’ve been know to have snarky thoughts about people too, but give how much crap there’s around us all the time, I decided to be the one to say something nice to others, in a pay it forward sort of way as much as I could, always to those I love. I blame it on being a nurse and working to try and make people feel better in any way you can, and when medication alone isn’t enough, a smiling & reassuring nurse can work miracles.

        As for the autism idea… it didn’t click with me until I read the discussing, but while reading I had been making lil mental notes about things that seemed out of the norm. The high intelligence, the way she has issues interacting with others, sticking to very clear routines, and her issues with having some empathy with her fellow students or other people. Also, her obsession with the tomato sandwiches. There are many people that never really diagnosed cause they are seen as simply a lil odd here and there that could have been diagnosed with very mild forms of something or other around the autism spectrum. I’m no expert because neurology & psychiatry are not my specialities, but it simply seemed to click, as you said.

        Now I’m all ready for the books for October and November!! Got the Animorphs for my Kindle and Farmer Boy from TBD! ;)
        Pili recently posted…It’s My Birthday Week: Today I’m giving away A Mad Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller!!

  7. Angie

    This post is utterly delightful. Harriet was a huge influence on me when I was a kid (along with Nancy Drew and Laura Ingalls) and I’ve always been afraid to reread because of that but now I know I have to.

    Also slightly random but the special edition copy is gorgeous and I am delighted to see a Powell’s sticker on it. I miss my hometown bookstore.

    I am so there for Animporphs and Farmer Boy. This is necessary for my life’s happiness.
    Angie recently posted…Review: Pieces of Olivia by Melissa West

    • Wendy Darling

      I’m so glad you found our classics series, Angie! Never too late to join in. :) I’m happy to hear you’re a fellow Nancy/Laura/Harriet fan.

      I know what you mean about being afraid to reread classics–sometimes they don’t hold up, but I assure you that these absolutely do! It’s interesting to read them as an adult, because you discover so many things you didn’t catch the first time around. Or like in my case, the first couple dozen times around, I still feel like such a dolt for never noticing the subtext in this book.

      And yesssss. I already had a HARRIET (of course), but I knew there was a special edition out this year for the anniversary. When we visited Portland this spring, I leafed through the book and had to have it!

      I’m very curious about the Animorphs books, which I’ve never read but sound like a lot of fun. And so so excited for FARMER BOY! It’s my favorite of the Little House books.

    • Kim

      Don’t be afraid! Even though I had a vastly different experience with the book as an adult I still loved it to pieces. Can’t wait for you to rediscover!

      And yesssssssss. Do join in on the Animorphs fun. It’s going to be awesome.

    • Layla

      I’m so jealous that you’ve *been* to Powell’s. I hear it is a magical place. I have a friend who goes every year (she has family in the area) and she always sends me pictures of her STACKS of books that she’s found. ::turns green with jealousy::

      Anyway, yes, re-read Harriet and also Animorphs and also Farmer Boy. I am *real* excited about Animorphs now.
      Layla recently posted…Classic MG Discussion: Harriet the Spy

  8. Nikki

    These were never stories I was fully interested in but my nieces read them now and it definitely warms my heart to see how timeless some of these books from childhood are. On a side note; I LOVE your nail polish. The green and the ode to Harriet :)

    • Wendy Darling

      I hope your nieces are enjoying these books! They’re classics for a reason. I often think about the crazy number of YA books that are published each year, and I wonder 50 years from now, which ones will stand the test of time. Not too too many, I bet–though things are cataloged so much more through the internet and blogs and such that it’ll be harder to quantify.

      And thanks! I loved Kim’s matching mani, she did a great job with those colors and lines. I was saying on Twitter that Harriet would hate my green nail polish, but oh well. :)

    • Wendy Darling

      I’m surprised by how many people missed reading this one! I hope you’ll get to read it sometime, it’s such a great book. And it feels contemporary, even though it was written 50 years ago.

      • Enbrethiliel

        +JMJ+

        (I hope it’s okay to try leaving this comment in an embedded discussion. It’s not posting the usual way.)

        This was so much fun to read! I’m glad that it was so long and detailed, too, but now it makes me want to be long and detailed in my comment as well. And that would take all weekend! LOL!

        I’ve read Harriet the Spy at least twice: once as a pre-teen and then again as an older teenager. (If there were other times–and there might have been, since I was a huge rereader as a youth and I have strong memories of scenes in this book–they don’t really stand out to me.) Both times, I felt disappointed in the story, for the same two reasons. The first is that I was put off by Harriet’s insensitivity and meanness. Take her assessment of Franca, who goes to the park to talk to the pigeons: “She doesn’t have a good time at home because everyone knows how dumb she is and doesn’t talk to her.” How awful, aye?

        But this makes me appreciate Wendy’s point that Harriet is actually projecting her own feelings onto others. Far from being an impartial observer, she sees everyone through the lens of her own circumstances. If we think about it–and I see that you ladies have (LOL!)–Harriet herself doesn’t have a good time at home because nobody except Ole Golly talks to her . . . and perhaps she secretly feels that it’s because her parents and the cook think that she is dumb. =(

        And Harriet doesn’t seem to understand how she looks to others. I particularly recall her bafflement at older people’s reactions to her–not just adults, but also teenagers. Now, I actually experienced this when I was in the third grade: something I said amused some sixth-graders so much that they brought their friends around to see me the next day. LOL! But I couldn’t have told you then why they found me funny and I can only guess now. At the end, though, does Harriet have more self-awareness? Or as Layla asks here, does Harriet actually learn something or change her writing for the better? Both major times I read the novel, I would have answered no–and that’s what broke it for me. But deep change can take time; perhaps Louise Fitzhugh thought it would be enough to show us the beginning, instead of spelling everything out. Besides, it might have taken several years for the seeds planted here to bear literary fruit!

        Speaking of the resolution, it’s the second reason I didn’t like Harriet the Spy both times. Although it was wrong of others to steal her notebook and spread her private thoughts around, I thought it was too much for her to disown those thoughts at the end and to call them “lies.” For they weren’t really lies; they were honest, albeit narrow-minded and biased, observations of people. Then again, this may be the point: Harriet’s printing of that retraction and Sport and Jenny’s acceptance of it are examples of white lies in action. Those two times I read Harriet the Spy, what I wanted for the ending was a big, emotional scene in which everyone gets to be honest with each other and to see themselves a bit more clearly in the process. (Cliched, I know! =P) Or maybe just a private moment in which Harriet can see how wrong she was about others: a scene that shatters one assumption that she has made and leads her to question the others. And just for balance, another scene in which someone who was in denial can admit that Harriet got something right! So I was especially unsatisfied with the moral that sometimes you have to lie.

        But now I see that the irony of it is that figuring out what things have to be held back and hidden under white lies is also a way to learn sensitivity and empathy. And Harriet is just at the beginning; we don’t see any more of the process.

        I also see that I’ve “doing a Harriet” here, projecting my own issues onto her. For I personally wouldn’t be satisfied with a friendship in which I had to conceal my thoughts from others–and in fact, I ended a friendship of fifteen years because my former friend and I kept arguing about religion and politics, and I didn’t want to go the “white lies” route. On the other hand, I do have a “filter” when I talk to my remaining friends. So I do accept the idea in part. But now I wonder, given that Louise Fitzhugh was gay, whether she herself was satisfied with her moral and her ending. Was she letting Harriet make the best of a bad situation only because that was what she had to do–and did she feel bittersweet about resolving the story that way?

    • Kim

      Laylaaaaaa THEY ARE AMAZING BOOKS. Two choice quotes from the Tor write up that’s linked:

      “…if you’re a modern kid looking for violent coming-of-age stories that promote gender equality, racial tolerance, and the freedom to self-identify, you can’t ask for a better saga than Animorphs.”

      and

      “Along the way, I was unconsciously deepening my understanding of wartime ethics, feminism, the importance of diversity, and many more sociopolitical issues that, almost twenty years later, are still just as important as they were when the books were first published.”

      So yeah, Animorphs is basically the best. Also, yes. Badass Rachel does in fact morph into a cat. :D

  9. Mary @ BookSwarm

    It’s been way too long since I read this one!! You’ve made me want to pick it up and fall in love with Harriet all over again. I remember reading it and wishing I liked tomatoes (I didn’t like them at all when I was younger). I also carried around a notebook for a while, though I forgot to write down my observations. Truly, I was a terrible spy.
    Mary @ BookSwarm recently posted…Speed Date with Rachel: End of the Itchy Witch

    • Wendy Darling

      Oh man, you have to read it again, Mary! We all picked up on stuff we’d previously missed, I feel like I appreciate it more every time I pick it up.

      I didn’t mind tomatoes as a kid, as we ate a lot of vegetables and my mother had a veggie garden at one point. But Harriet definitely made me more interested in them, and to this day I can’t see a tomato sandwich without thinking of her.

      I love that you carried around a notebook like Harriet, though! I was more trying to be The Three Investigators and Trixie Belden at this stage, I think. Solving mysteries and secret clubs and such. Hah, I wonder if any real spies or detectives went into their professions because they read books that featured characters who were? You never read about that happening.

    • Kim

      I’m always going to think of Harriet now every time I have a tomato sandwich. I lovvvvve them! Haha that memory is precious. I feel like at some point I also was inspired to have a notebook but really didn’t get very far with it, either. Clearly we weren’t destined for a life of espionage.
      Kim recently posted…Classic MG Discussion: Harriet the Spy

    • Wendy Darling

      Okay, good–I had an “ahah!” moment when I thought of that, so I’m glad it makes sense to you. I couldn’t get over the similarities when it dawned on me how familiar Mary Poppins was to Ole Golly, as well as some of the themes. I love them both, though in very different ways.

      And wow, I didn’t realize there was an Animorphs TV show, too! I’ve never read these books, so this will be a new-to-me read. :)

    • Kim

      Wendy is so good at those spot on, keen observations!

      Ha I remember scoffing at the TV show (yep-even as just a child!) and thinking it couldn’t possibly be as good as the books so I never saw much of it. But I’m excited you’re excited about it!! :D