Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Happy Birthday to Harriet

Last week marked the 50th year since the release of Harriet the Spy, the groundbreaking novel by Louise Fitzhugh.

Here’s an article about it in Publisher’s Weekly: http://publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/61119-harriet-the-spy-celebrates-50-years-of-sleuthing.html

When I first read Harriet the Spy, I was about nine.  For the first time, I recognized myself in print.  I didn’t look like Harriet (although I appreciated that she chose to wear glasses, a condition foisted on me by virtue of bad eyes), and I lived not in Manhattan but in Berkeley, California, which struck me at the time as woefully pedestrian.    I went to a rather large public school, my father was a surgeon, and no one in my neck of the woods had either nannies or cooks.  I did not have a Sport or a Janie in my life: my best friend was Susan, who I think wanted to be a cartoonist.  (Now I see this as admirable, but at the time, I desperately wanted a friend who planned on blowing up the world.)

Nothing about me looked like Harriet.  And yet, I saw myself in her.  What I saw was a girl who understood what writing was, what it meant, why it mattered.  A girl who valued her interior life more than her social life and had to struggle to make room for the friends she loved a lot.   Someone who thought she didn’t care what other people thought about her but, in fact, did.  Someone who genuinely liked herself, even as she was able to take meticulous note of her flaws.
Of course, I tried to spy.  I couldn’t.  Houses in Berkeley were too exposed, and there were no dumbwaiters.  Also, I was shy and terrified of being caught.  In that, I was not like Harriet.  It was a source of profound disappointment.

I tried to like tomato sandwiches.  Ultimately, I had to admit that I liked pizza more.

But I did write everything down.  I looked at people wherever I was, and I wrote about them.  And that was how I found myself, how I finally realized who I was.

I strongly urge everyone who hasn’t already done so to read the book.  It is still wonderful, and you will be a better person for having met Harriet.  She remains a treasure.