Saturday, March 26, 2011

Book Review: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

I had never read Harriet the Spy as a kid, and I'm not sure why. Maybe Harriet seemed like too much of a tomboy for me. I like my tomboys like Nancy Drew - wearing a smart skirt and looking great despite her athleticism. But it's a modern classic so I thought I should give it a tackle.

I was surprised to find that Harriet - a girl who I'd always assumed was pretty independent and self-sufficient, has not only a nanny but also a cook (and it doesn't take place all THAT long ago!) And her family seems to own an entire building on the upper east side of Manhattan! Wow. She's very wealthy, but she doesn't seem to understand that. At one point she does ask what makes people rich, but there's no forthcoming answer and the question is dropped.

Harriet is independent - but only because she knows Ole Golly, her nanny, is at home ready to back her up. Ole Golly doesn't just agree with Harriet's antics blindly, but she does understand Harriet much more than anyone in her life, particularly her parents. Harriet has a notebook in which she writes down everything, with no filter. Some of it is her "spying", in which she goes around to different houses (and one business) and does spy on complete strangers, but she also writes down everything about her parents, Ole Golly, and her classmates. Often these are fleeting thoughts, when she's angry, and since they are intended for her eyes only, they are often not nice. One day, her classmates get ahold of her notebook, and read it. They are all horribly insulted by her observations and comments, even her best friends Sport and Janey. Meanwhile, Ole Golly has gotten married and now Harriet is old enough to not need a nanny, so she has no one in her corner. Her classmates come up with a plan to get even, and Harriet melts down.

This book is very true to the behavior of 11-year-olds. (Although I thought the illustrations looked like the kids were more like 6-7 and I didn't like them. I did like the cover of my edition, because Harriet looks like the right age and it fits her description to a T.) Kids are very mean, even though adults don't seem to remember that. Also at this age, hormones are just starting to appear making emotions more volatile and close to the surface. Every little thing is the end of the world. That's all very accurate. Anyone who has ever taken a lunch to a table and had everyone else at the table get up and leave, will truly identify with Harriet, even if they would never write the things she wrote in her notebook.

As an adult reading it, I particularly noted things said about the other students' families, such as the girl with no father, and the boy whose mother had run away. I wondered if other kids would notice these things, but I doubt it. An elementary school friend and I last year discussed the messed-up home lives of some of our fellow classmates from way back when, realizing both what we knew but didn't realize, and also what we had no idea about until much, much later. Ms. Fitzhugh has all the hints and flat-out statements about the other children's difficult homes in the book, but at that age kids don't cut each other slack because they might be going through a tough time. Mostly they're too self-centered to even think about what these hints mean is really going on in their friends' homes, but also at that age differences are either cool (minority) or are things to hide because they will result in teasing (majority). That's it. Even the kids going through the rough stuff don't realize how rough it is because they don't know any different. Except in extreme cases, it's just life and it's just how things are. I liked that Ms. Fitzhugh included these details as they make the book very real and also as an adult, they explain a bit of the behavior of the children.

Harriet the Spy is a great book. It's much more deep than it first appears. Yes, it's about a girl who wrote some nasty things in a book and her classmates read it and get revenge. But it's also about a writer finding her voice, about a young girl being ostracized and dealing with that, it's about loss (of Ole Golly) and growing up and facing one's fears. It would be an excellent book for a ten-year-old, who will get the superficial story, and who also will hopefully absorb some of the deeper lessons subconsciously.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

I borrowed this book from a friend.


Julie P. said...

I intended to read/re-read this one for the Shelf Discovery challenge but I never got around to it!

Laura at Library of Clean Reads said...

I've heard of Harriet the Spy, but never read it either. My 10 year old daughter might like this one. Thanks for the great review!

Jeane said...

I always just thought this story was about a girl spying on other people, like trying to solve mysteries about her neighbors and being wrong. It sounds like it's really so much more! Never read it myself, but I might just have to remedy that.