Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet the Spy - 50th Anniversary Edition
Harriet the Spy - 50th Anniversary Edition. Delacorte Books for Young Readers

Summary of Harriet the Spy

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh has delighted kids and outraged some adults for more than 50 years. Spying is a serious business that requires concentration, patience and an ability to think fast and write faster. Meet Harriet M. Welsch, 11-year-old girl spy and irreverent rebel.

Fitzhugh’s classic novel Harriet the Spy, first published in 1964, introduced realism in the form of a flawed main character to an unsuspecting audience.

Controversial and charismatic, Fitzhugh’s Harriet was a revolutionary personality bound to stir up dynamic discussion. The publisher recommends the book for ages 8-12. I recommend it for ages 10 and up.

The Story

Harriet M. Welsch is an 11-year-old sixth grader with a vivid imagination, a bossy attitude, and a freakish ability to hide in one spot for hours while observing her targets. The only child of a well-to -do New York couple, Harriet lives with her parents, a cook and a nurse named Ole Golly. She has two best friends, Sport and Janie, who are used to Harriet’s take charge attitude and play along with her imaginary games.

Although independent in her spy adventures, Harriet is a girl who depends on routine. Each day follows a schedule including coming home after to school for cake and milk before she takes off on her spy route. After school she puts on her spy gear and canvases the neighborhood.

Whether hanging out in a dark alley listening to the Dei Santi family, clinging to a window ledge to spy on Mr. Withers and his cats, or wedging herself tightly into a dumbwaiter to hear Mrs. Plumber’s theatrical phone calls, Harriet will wait for hours to hear something she can write down in her precious notebook.

Life is neat and predictable for Harriet until the day she discovers that Ole Golly has a boyfriend! Dependent on Ole Golly for stability and routine, Harriet is distraught when the nurse announces that she’s getting married and leaving Harriet to start a new life in Canada. Harriet, shaken by this change in routine, focuses more on her spying and writes copious hateful notes about friends and neighbors.

Meanwhile, she is fighting with her parents and finding it difficult to concentrate in school. Her troubles come to a head during a game of tag when she realizes her spy notebook has fallen into the hands of her classmates. The classmates’ revenge combined with Harriet’s personal world upheaval put into motion a roller coaster of disastrous events.

Author Louise Fitzhugh

Louise Fitzhugh, born October 5, 1928 in Memphis, Tennessee, did not have an ideal childhood. Her parents divorced when she was two and she was raised by her father who funded her attendance at Hutchins, an elite all-girl boarding school.

Fitzhugh attended college to study painting and started her career as an illustrator. Harriet the Spy, which she also illustrated, debuted in 1964. Louise Fitzhugh died unexpectedly of a brain aneurysm at the age of 46 in 1974.

In addition to Harriet the Spy, Fitzhugh's Nobody's Family is Going to Change, a realistic novel for middle grade readers 10 and up, remains in print. (Sources: Children’s Literature Network and Macmillan)

Controversy

Harriet M. Welsch is not only a girl spy; she’s a girl spy with spice and that type of character didn’t find favor with some parents and teachers. Besides being brash, self-centered and prone to throwing full blown tantrums, Harriet was not the polite demure spy like Nancy Drew with whom most readers were familiar. Harriet cursed, talked back to her parents, and didn’t care that her words were hurtful.

According to the NPR feature “Unapologetically Harriet, the Misfit Spy," the book was banned and challenged by many parents and teachers who felt Harriet was a poor role model for children because she exhibited delinquent tendencies.

Harriet, the early critics argued, didn’t spy, but rather gossiped, slandered, and hurt other people without feeling sorry about her actions.

Despite early controversy, Harriet the Spy is listed as #17 on the list of Top 100 Children’s Novels in a 2012 poll of School Library Journal readers and is considered a landmark novel in realistic children’s literature.

My Recommendation

Harriet isn’t exactly a paragon of virtue. Spying on her neighbors and friends, writing down mean and hurtful comments, she doesn’t seem truly sorry for her words or actions. Today these characteristics in a fictional children’s book character are not atypical, but in 1964 Harriet was unrivaled as a snarky character who was unafraid to speak her mind or talk back to her parents.

To be honest, Harriet was a startling character and my first thoughts were, “This child is a spoiled brat”. In addition, I found Harriet’s parents disconnected, harsh, and completely clueless on how to talk to their only child. Yet, I still kept turning the pages because I was curious to see what would happen to this self-absorbed yet very intelligent girl who was really very lonely. When Ole Golly left, the one person whose stern ways and wise words gave Harriet the boundaries she needed, Harriet turned her feelings outwards and became especially mean to the people she cared about the most.

Children’s book expert Anita Silvey, who included Harriet the Spy in her book 100 Best Books for Children, describes Harriet as a solid character who stays the same. She doesn’t metamorphose into a nice little girl who is deeply repentant for the harm she’s inflicted. Instead, she’s learned to be a bit more tactful in expressing herself. Harriet is a rebel, and it’s easy to believe that she’s a real person because she stays true to herself.

Harriet the Spy is an engaging book for reluctant readers as well as for readers who enjoy stories with unique characters who think and speak outside the box. I recommend this book for readers ages 10-up.

(Yearling Books, an imprint of Random House, 2001. Paperback ISBN: 9780440416791)

The 50th Anniversary Edition of Harriet the Spy

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 publication of Harriet the Spy, a special hardcover edition was published in 2014, with a number of special additions. These include tributes by a number of well-known children's authors, including Judy Blume, Lois Lowry and Rebecca Stead and a map of Harriet’s New York City neighborhood and spy route.  The special edition also includes some of the original author and editor correspondence.

(50th Anniversary Edition, 2014. Hardcover ISBN: 9780385376105; also available in e-book formats)

More Books With Female Protagonists, from Elizabeth Kennedy

There is an amazingly wide variety of female main characters in juvenile fiction. by Lucy Maud Montgomery is an enduring classic as is the science fiction and fantasy novel by Madeleine L'Engle, and both have female main characters worth knowing. Another interesting female is the title character in . The main characters in these novels are very different from Harriet, and you and your children may enjoy comparing them with the girl spy.

 Edited on 2/19/16 by Elizabeth Kennedy, About.com Children's Books Expert