Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Ones That Got Away: Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh (1965)

Not very many children's books get their own 50th Anniversary Special Edition of The Horn Book. That's especially true of books that didn't win any of the major ALA awards. However, though Harriet the Spy, the debut novel by Louise Fitzhugh, was shut out of the 1965 awards, it's cast a long, long shadow over the succeeding half-century of children's literature.

Harriet was a highly controversial novel at the time, and in some ways, it's remained so. Its realistic, almost brutal look at playground politics is jarring, and its often-unlikable protagonist is something of a love-her-or-hate-her proposition. The narrative arc too is unusual, given that it has much more in common with the infamous Seinfeld rule ("no hugging, no learning") than anything typical of children's literature. The setting is familiar, but treated much differently than in earlier books; Harriet felt to me like nothing so much as a dystopian version of Roller Skates.

I never came to Harriet as a child, so I inevitably view it through the lens of an adult reader. Frankly, I'm ambivalent about it. It does what it does well better than most other books dream of doing -- Fitzhugh's understanding of child psychology rivals that of Kevin Henkes, and I'd be hard-pressed to name ten children's books that equal Harriet in the excellence of their characterization. Every character in the novel feels like a living, breathing human being, from Harriet herself on down to the teachers and community members on the margins of the story. This, I think, is what people who love Harriet love most about it.

Structurally, however, Harriet is fairly loose. It's divided into three books, but the third book is much shorter than the other two, and I didn't feel like the novel ended so much as simply petered out. I don't think this is because Harriet learns very little from the story's events, since I know it's possible to make that work very well. As K.T. Horning notes in this month's Horn Book, when Fitzhugh brought Harriet to her publisher's office, it was just a series of Harriet's journal entries, and I'm not convinced Fitzhugh ever fully managed to fit her brilliant characters into a realized plot.

I'm also a bit uncomfortable about Harriet for some of the same reasons that I'm not the world's biggest fan of The Westing Game. Someone on Twitter once summarized the HBO series Girls as "white girls, money, whining," and the same argument could be made against Harriet. It's true that each person's problems are their own, and that Harriet's life falls apart almost immediately after the only truly "safe" adult in her life leaves (her parents certainly aren't much help). Yet, given her tremendous wealth and privilege, Harriet's self-centeredness and smugness render her very unattractive to me. Sport, whose problems are easier for me to relate to, is the character I would rather have spent more time with (and indeed, Fitzhugh would later give him his own book).

That, however, is me looking at the book through the eyes of a 21st-century adult, not a 20th-century child. Generations of children have adored Harriet, and it's hard to imagine much of children's literature, from Jack Gantos to Robert Cormier to Barbara Park, without Harriet M. Welsch leading the way.

What of the Newbery? The winner in 1965 was Shadow of a Bull, by Maia Wojciechowska, which, though I think it's a more successful book (and one which I'll be posting about shortly), is much more old-fashioned and much less ambitious. It's not a winner that very many people go back to. The only Honor book was Across Five Aprils, by Irene Hunt, which is also not a particularly well-remembered title.

You could certainly argue that Harriet the Spy should have won in retrospect. I'd opine, however, that a better choice would be a different novel that was snubbed that year, The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander, another genuine classic of American children's literature, and one which I think is more carefully put together.

Alexander, of course, would receive plenty of accolades for his books in the future -- a Newbery Medal (The High King, 1969), a Newbery Honor (The Black Cauldron, 1966), the National Book Award (The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian, 1971), and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award (The Fortune-Tellers, 1992), just to name a few. Fitzhugh, alas, would not. She published only three books in her lifetime (and illustrated two others) before dying of a brain aneurysm at the tragically young age of 46. Four other books were printed posthumously, but by and large, Fitzhugh lives on through Harriet the Spy.

But, as this month's Horn Book goes to show, as long as there is children's literature, there will be Harriet.


  1. I did read HARRIET several times as a child, and I remember it fondly, though it wasn't one of my very favorites. Possibly because of Harriet's insistence on casual clothing and simple food, the affluence of her situation never really struck home for me -- it was a different kind of family than my own (the closest thing I ever had to a nanny was when we had a grad student living with us for a few semesters), but I didn't spend a lot of time analyzing why or how it was different, I suppose. I was more caught up in the idea of the spy route and the notebooks. As an adult I can consciously appreciate the characterization that is certainly Fitzhugh's strong suit, but as a child I just uncritically enjoyed the way the book worked.

    I never read THE LONG SECRET or SPORT as a child; I did pick them up several years ago, but the magic wasn't there as it might have been had I discovered them at the same time as I discovered HARRIET.

    SHADOW OF A BULL is one of the Newbery winners that I have not read. I think I read ACROSS FIVE APRILS as a teen, but it didn't make a huge impact (obviously, since I'm not entirely sure I read it). I really ought to read those . . . but reading this post, of course, makes me want to reread HARRIET THE SPY instead.

    1. Those are interesting points!

      For what it's worth, even people who did read them as a kid don't tend to consider LONG SECRET or SPORT to be on the same level as HARRIET. I've never read either of them, but your reaction seems to be a common one.

  2. As a kid one of the things I liked best about Harriet the Spy was how real it felt, not only the characters and schoolyard politics, as you note, but that it simply showed what life was like for these kids rather than having some big plot and strong, decisive ending. I agree that the ending isn't really much of one, and as an editor working in the 21st century I steer authors away from those, but I have to say I have a soft spot for the kinds of books that often have these sort of non-endings. There were a lot of wonderful books like that back when I was a kid--episodic, character driven, slice of life, where plotting wasn't so much the point--Harriet and Julia Redfern and Margaret, and I'd even argue that this is true for some older books like All of a Kind Family and Ramona (and the Moomins!) I recently re-read Harriet and loved as much as I always do (the scene where she tries to feel like an onion for the school play always makes me weep with laughter). Also recently re-read Are You There God, which has a similar lack of a real ending, and which never bothered me as a kid. A weak, petering-off ending in a plot-driven story would have driven me crazy then, as now, but in these kinds of stories I didn't mind.

    1. Hmm, those are interesting points. I loved a lot of those kinds of books too as a kid -- Homer Price and The Story Girl and that sort of thing.

      If there's a difference, I feel like it's that Harriet, especially in books 2 and 3, seems to be setting itself up for an overarching plot arc, only to pull back at the last moment. It's interesting to try and think of Harriet as one of those episodic novels though -- looking at this review again, I compared it to Roller Skates, and that one's as loose as they come.