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!
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?
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.
Kim: 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.
Also, 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
Our 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!
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.