Classic children’s book ‘Harriet the Spy’ turns 50


"Harriet the Spy" first appeared 50 years ago; many grown-ups consider it their childhood favorite. (Random House Children's Books)
February 25

When Jeff Kinney, Kate DiCamillo or Rick Riordan writes a new book, kids often rush to buy it. But there are also books that were popular long ago — when your parents were young — that deserve kids’ attention today.

Harriet the Spy,” which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, is one of those books. Many grown-ups consider it their childhood favorite.

Written and illustrated by Louise Fitzhugh, “Harriet the Spy” was different from any book anyone had ever read. And Harriet was a new kind of character.

Eleven-year-old Harriet M. Welsch is obnoxious. She dresses like a boy, throws temper tantrums, swears at her parents and thinks terribly unkind thoughts. She refuses to eat anything but tomato sandwiches for lunch. She even invents her own middle initial.

None of that is unusual in kids’ books today. But in 1964, Harriet and her behaviors were startling — even alarming. Some grown-ups objected to her, saying she was a bad role model. But kids related to the character, including kids who, like Harriet, were lonely and felt like outsiders.

Harriet walks around her neighborhood spying on people and writing her honest observations — many of them quite mean — in her notebook.

Here’s one example, written in Harriet’s usual all-capital-letters style:

MY MOTHER IS ALWAYS SAYING PINKY WHITEHEAD’S WHOLE PROBLEM IS HIS MOTHER. I BETTER ASK HER WHAT THAT MEANS OR I’LL NEVER FIND OUT. DOES HIS MOTHER HATE HIM? IF I HAD HIM I’D HATE HIM.

Harriet spies on everyone, including her nanny, Ole Golly, best friends Sport and Janie, classmates such as the Boy with the Purple Socks, and neighbors who are on her “spy route.” But she doesn’t spy just for the sake of spying. Harriet wants to be a writer.

“Ole Golly told me if I was going to be a writer I better write down everything,” she explains, “so I’m a spy that writes down everything.”

Harriet gets in big trouble when her classmates steal her notebook and read the nasty comments she’s written about them. They gang up against her, and she has to figure out how to make things right. Can Harriet find a way to keep spying and writing without hurting everyone’s feelings? After all, as Ole Golly points out, “writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends.”

A 50th-anniversary edition of the book came out this week. It features a map of Harriet’s spy route and a section in which grown-ups, including many writers, share their feelings about the book.

Lenore Look, author of the “Alvin Ho” book series, remembers reading “Harriet the Spy” when she was in third grade.

“Keeping a journal is the single most important thing a writer does,” Look says. “It is the key to the writing life. And ‘Harriet the Spy’ was my road map.”

Happy birthday, Harriet!

— Jennifer LaRue Huget

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