Saturday, April 9, 2011

H is for Harriet the Spy

My friend Mark will be like, I knew she was gonna do Harriet.
Because I am Harriet-obsessed. Not obsessed like people who have entire Harriet websites or wear round-ass Harriet glasses, or who eat tomato sandwiches Every. Single. Day.
Louise Fitzhugh

Not a Harriet-stalker by any means, I do, however, have a certain fondness for Louise Fitzhugh's most famous literary heroine, an obnoxious tweenager who fills her notebook with everything about everyone. Fitzhugh published Harriet the Spy in 1964 and I must have picked it up in 1970-71. I was a voracious reader back in the day, partial to Nancy Drew, The Black Stallion and any piece of crap that was hanging around the house. I read ketchup bottle labels, billboards and street signs. I could not pee without having something to read, even if that meant the back of a shampoo bottle I'd already read 400 times.
Then one day I found Harriet the Spy at Markham Public Library and my life changed.
This girl, this Harriet, was me.
She was smart and smart-mouthed, stubborn and funny, and there was nothing cute about her. In fact, she was nothing at all like she was portrayed in the terrible movies Hollywood produced. Forget there was ever movies made about Harriet – they're that awful and stupid.
The book, though, was something an 11-year-old girl might fall in love with. I know I did. Just ask my friend Mark. Before you could say "tomato sandwich," me and Mark were forming Spies Incorporated, the best club I ever belonged to, in which members assumed cool spy names, started spying on people in the neighbourhood and then circulating reports to fellow members. 
I was the Wacky Spy, the president, the ringleader. Pretty soon we had a comfortable quota of kid members, including my cousin Kelly and Mark's little brother, and we started recruiting spies from the realm of famous people. I sent letters to the Prime Minister, our local Member of Parliament, the disc jockey from Toronto's popular am radio station and even the Guess Who, asking if they would join. I think I still have the letter I got back from Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau's office, saying it was nice that boys and girls had clubs they were interested in and thanks for the offer but the Prime Minister was a little too busy running the country to be a spy. Yeah, well... whatever... we carried on without Pierre for about a year or so before I discovered boys and our enthusiasm waned.
I picked up Harriet the Spy a while ago and it was still a good book. Never mind that it was written in the 1960s. Never mind I'm far from being a kid. It's still, as far as I'm concerned, far and away one of the best children's books ever written.
Whenever I run into a writer of young adult fiction I ask, "Have you read Harriet the Spy?" and I'm always surprised when they say no. Here's an excerpt from one of my favourite books of all time. Hopefully it's enough to make you say, "yes."

From Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
It was time for her cake and milk. Every day at three-forty she had cake and milk. Harriet loved doing everything every day in the same way.
“Time for my cake, for my cake and milk, time for my milk and cake.” She ran yelling through the front door of her house. She ran through the front hall past the dining room and the living room and down the steps into the kitchen. There she ran smack into the cook.
“Like a missile you are, shot from that school,” screamed the cook.
“Hello cook, hello, cooky, hello, hello, hello, hello,” sang Harriet. Then she opened her notebook and wrote:
She slammed the notebook and the cook jumped. Harriet laughed.
The cook put the cake and milk in front of her. “What you always writing in that dad-blamed book for?” she asked with a sour little face.
“Because,” Harriet said around a bite of cake, “I’m a spy.”
“Spy, huh. Some spy.”
“I am a spy. I’m a good spy, too. I’ve never been caught.”
Cook settled herself with a cup of coffee. “How long you been a spy?”
“Since I could write. Ole Golly told me if I was going to be a writer I better write down everything, so I’m a spy that writes down everything.”
“Hmmmmmmph.” Harriet knew the cook couldn’t think of anything to say when she did that.
“I know all about you.”
“Like fun, you do.” The cook looked startled.
“I do too. I know you live with your sister in Brooklyn and that she might get married and you wish you had a car and you have a so that’s no good and drinks.”
“What do you do, child? Listen at doors?”
“Yes,” said Harriet.
“Well, I never,” said the cook. “I think that’s bad manners.”
“Ole Golly doesn’t. Ole Golly says find out everything you can cause life is hard enough even if you know a lot.”
“I bet she don’t know you spooking round the house listening at doors.”
“Well, how am I supposed to find out anything?”
“I don’t know” — the cook shook her head — “I don’t know about that Ole Golly.”
“What do you mean?” Harriet felt apprehensive.
“I don’t know. I just don’t know. I wonder about her.”
Ole Golly came into the room. “What is it you don’t know?”
Cook looked as though she might hide under the table. She stood up. “Can I get you your tea, Miss Golly?” she said meekly.
“That would be most kind of you,” said Ole Golly and sat down.
Harriet opened her notebook:
“What do you have in school this year, Harriet?” asked Ole Golly.
“English, History, Geography, French, Math, ugh, Science, ugh, and the Performing Arts, ugh, ugh, ugh.” Harriet rattled these off in a very bored way.
“What history?”
“Greeks and Romans, ugh, ugh, ugh.”
“They’re fascinating.”
“They are. Just wait, you’ll see. Talk about spies. Those gods spied on everybody all the time.”
“‘Yes’, Harriet, not ‘yeah’.”
“Well, I wish I’d never heard of them.”
“Ah, there’s a thought from Aesop for you: ‘We would often be sorry if our wishes were gratified.’” Ole Golly gave a little moo of satisfaction after she had delivered herself of this.
“I think I’ll go now,” Harriet said.
“Yes,” said the cook, “go out and play.”
Harriet stood up. “I do not go out to PLAY, I go out to WORK!” and in as dignified a way as possible she walked from the room and up the steps from the kitchen.

Louise Fitzhugh, who died in 1974 at the age of 46, also drew all the characters for Harriet. These drawings are every bit as wonderful as the book itself. Here's a collection of my favourites:
Harrison, a guy in the neighbourhood

Janie, Harriet's mad scientist friend

Joe Curry, who worked at a grocery store

Mrs. Golly, Ole Golly's mom

Harriet's socialite mom

Ole Golly, Harriet's nanny

Rachel, a weird kid at school


  1. What a wonderful tribute, Cathy.

    I'm buying this book today. Thank you.

  2. I bet being your neighbor was a lot of fun! I never read the Harriet books, but I can see from this how they would have been so appealing.

  3. Lou - That makes me so happy! You and your daughter will love it.
    Harry - I dunno if I was all that popular with the neighbours... I was just as obnoxious as Harriet. Maybe 'fun' is too strong a word...

  4. Harriet the Spy was my most favorite, favorite, favorite book. I can't believe I don't have a copy today. My daughter is turning 11 next week and you have reminded me of the MOST perfect birthday gift for me, er..I meant HER, ever!

    Thank you!!!!!!

  5. So fun! I had heard of it but haven't ever read it. It is now on my TBR list! Thanks!

  6. I never read Harriet the Spy, but now I wish I had. I might have to do some snooping and dig up a copy. I love your list of Spy possibles, and the Trudeau connection. Too funny. :D

  7. You forgot The Queen of England.

    The brilliant thing about Harriet the Spy is the courage and honesty with which it is written. I guess Louise Fitzhugh had a bit of a troubled life and she isn't afraid to complete Harriet with some issues and quirks. Amazing and so appropriate that such an honest and frank work should be written for Children.

  8. I'm here via BBP land! You visited my blog earlier today and wanted to say thanks!

    I ADORED Harriet the Spy. Loved her!

    And, I have to say, you may not have been cute as a youngster ( I have no idea!), but you certainly are cute now! Those dimples? I'm so jealous! I always wanted dimples!

  9. It's funny how some of these stories (especially the kids ones) are timeless.

  10. I haven't read Harriet's spy adventures and am sorry about that, enough to dive into one and enjoy the fun. It's all so timeless, and unlike Nancy Drew's Carolyn Keene, there's a real author. Thanks for this lovely post!

  11. I've never heard of Harriet. I feel so deprived now. *sniff*

  12. Harriet.

    She was my buddy, too. I write because of Harriet, and definitely kept journals. Thank you for this gift, thank you for reminding me of Harriet and that it is time to give my orange-covered book to my daughter (and to read it with her).

    Remember when she was in the play and she had to be an onion?


  13. I never read the Harriet books but I can see the appeal - I will have to try to track down a copy and have a read. I really liked Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox when I was a kid, as well as, the Nancy Drew books and anything I could get my hands

  14. Nicole - It IS the perfect birthday present for an 11-year-old girl. I'm so glad to hear you're a Harriet fan, too.
    Pam and Laurita - You wouldn't be disappointed, reading it now. It really is a book that appeals to grown-ups as well as kids.
    Mark - The Queen! How could I have forgotten the Queen? Yes, we sent her a request, too, and I think we got a letter back.. or am I imagining that? (Mark is the keeper of all my childhood memories.)
    Alan - I'm wondering if Pokemon will have adults waxing nostaligic in 30 years...
    Kittie - I always envy you because you're in a swimming pool. Endless summer!
    Laura Eno! Never heard of Harriet? I bet she's heard of you!
    Linda - your comment brought a lump to my throat. I just wanna hug you! You know what? I vaguely remember the play but, no surprise... I can't remember anything these days.
    Kathy - But I do remember Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox! I do! I think when I went out to Nova Scotia a long time ago there's a monument to Blue in a town on Cape Breton. But I could be hallucinating.

  15. This is so wonderful. I am one of the guilty ones--I have never read Harriet. I was more of an S.E. Hinton/Judy Blume/Nancy Drew type of reader at 11. I am definitely going to get this one. At how great that you created a club and invited famous people! Love it!!!

  16. Nice to meet you through the A-Z challenge! Hope to see you around!

  17. I can see why you like this writer. Her language practically sings. You've undoubtedly learned from her. If you wrote about a ketchup bottle, I'd read it. (and who could resist those drawings?)


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