Harriet the Spy

Written and illustrated by Louise Fitzhugh (1964)

The best childhood books often drive their readers to do something: whether it’s making your neighbors act out the Awful Dynne chapter from The Phantom Tollbooth, forcing those same long-suffering neighbors to spend most of a week in a shrub after reading The Changeling, or searching high and low for a mystery—any mystery—in the throes of Nancy Drew. I’m guessing that almost anyone who’s read Harriet the Spy has grabbed a notebook and started “spying” on those around them.

At my school, when everyone was reading HTS (after the weaving craze and before the cinnamon-toothpick craze), the trend was less to actively spy on people and more to just write insulting things about them in one’s notebook. Which, yes, Harriet did, but that’s not what her notebook was for. Writing down insulting observations about our friends was a lot easier than spying, though, so that’s the angle we opted for.

Did some girls accidentally-on-purpose leave their notebooks lying around where they would be found? If they did, they were likely disappointed by the reaction. Which wasn’t scandal and ostracism so much as eye-rolling. Turns out you have to be highly attentive and a precociously good writer to come up with truly impressive insulting observations. “There’s a reason they call Mel ‘Smell’” just wasn’t in Harriet’s league. (Also, and just for the record, the only reason anyone might have called Mel Smell was that it rhymed. If her name had been Kathy, as most of our names were then, no one ever would have considered it.)

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