This is the story of how I came to read and know and love Harriet the Spy. It is also a harrowing account of my brush with danger, in which my ten-year-old self stared fear in the face.
When I was nine or so, I started having trouble with words. I grew up with four older sisters. My bridge-builder dad got home every night after dark, but Mom would hold dinner and we’d all eat together at our big round kitchen table with a lazy Susan in the middle. Dinnertime was our time to talk and tell about our day. But as the youngest kid, I could never seem to get a word in edgewise.
I began to stutter.
My mother was concerned about the stuttering. Every night, she would tap on a glass with a spoon and announce that it was my time to talk. Just me. Nobody else. The kitchen fell funeral-quiet. Forks stopped clattering and sisters stopped chattering. Of course, as soon as it was my turn, I became even more tongue-tied.
Then my mother had an idea. One day, she ventured into downtown Pittsburgh to the book department at Kaufmann’s department store, where she talked to a knowledgeable salesperson about a book that might speak to her ten-year-old daughter who stuttered.
She brought home a brand-new, shiny hardcover. Cleverly, it was not a book about a girl who stuttered, or the heroic story of how such a girl overcame stuttering. It was a book about writing. A book about wanting to be a writer. A book I would go on to read over and over. The book was Harriet the Spy, written and illustrated by Louise Fitzhugh.
And with it, my mother handed me a lined spiral notebook, in hopes that I’d write down all those things that I wasn’t able to say.
I read the book in gulps, lying on my stomach under the piano by the cozy heating vent. I read myself to sleep at night, just like Harriet. I still have my original hardback copy; it creaks with age. It smells of childhood and secrets and the underneaths of pianos and beds.
I soon began eating tomato sandwiches, pestering my mother for spy-approved dance classes, and conducting science experiments with my friend in the basement. I wore dress-up glasses with no lenses and adopted my own spy route. Pocket notebook in hand, that’s when I first began writing everything down. And spying.
Spying is bound to get you into trouble, as it did with Harriet. My own spying venture landed me in a world of trouble. I grew up in the suburbs, where, alas, nobody had a dumbwaiter for spying on rich folks like Mrs. Agatha K. Plumber. But dumbwaiter or not, I, too, wanted to spy on somebody interesting. Somebody other. Somebody famous.
I knew of only one famous person in our neighborhood: Bruno Sammartino. Bruno Sammartino was a famous wrestler. We watched him on Channel 11 on Saturday evenings, on the popular Studio Wrestling program hosted by Chilly Billy Cardille. Dad told us tales of Bruno’s historic match with Gorilla Monsoon.
Who wouldn’t want to spy on a famous wrestler? My plan was to sneak up to his house in an attempt to capture a glimpse of his exciting secret life. Then, à la Harriet, I would dutifully write down, for time and posterity, all the amazing things I uncovered.
I hopped on my red Schwinn Stingray Slik Chick bicycle and pedaled, fast and furious, over to Bruno’s street. WWHD? What Would Harriet Do? Ditch the bike at the corner, hidden in the bushes, of course. Then proceed to Bruno Sammartino’s house on foot. Glancing left and right, I made certain nobody was watching — no one even peering from behind a neighbor’s curtain. Crouching low to the ground, I crossed the yard and hid in the spiky bush outside his window.
I tried to quash the fear, the mixture of thrill and tomato sandwich rising up from my belly.
I took deep breaths to tame my heartbeat. Just as I was about to peek into the house, just as I was about to get a window into Famous-Studio-Wrestler-Bruno-Sammartino’s world, I froze.
Because what I hadn’t known was that Bruno Sammartino had a very large, very scary guard dog. A German shepherd with pointed black-tipped ears and the teeth of a wolf.
I remember the giant sound of a snarl.
I remember running.
I forgot I’d been told that dogs smell fear. I forgot to freeze in place. I forgot to think about what Harriet would do.
I ran. But not before I got bitten by Bruno Sammartino’s dog.
I ran all the way home. But as soon as I got to my front door, I realized I couldn’t tell my mother what really happened. If I did, I’d have to admit I’d been sneaking around and trespassing and spying on Bruno Sammartino.
So I told my older sisters. I showed them the gash on my arm where I’d been bitten. The bite was ugly and discolored, complete with what I was sure were tooth marks.
Their immediate reaction: “You have rabies!”
I could not believe my ears. Rabies!? “What does that mean?” I wailed.
My sisters, who liked to tease me, soon had me convinced that I’d be rushed to the hospital, foaming at the mouth, where the doctor would strap me down and give me a shot with a needle the size of a baseball bat — right in my belly button.
I ran across the street to tell my best friend. Judy was to me as Sport was to Harriet. I showed her the dog bite. I asked her if she thought I had rabies.
“How do I know?” she shrugged. “But I know how we can find out.”
She rushed into another room and came back armed with Volume Q–R of the World Book Encyclopedia. She looked up “Rabies” and began reading aloud.
By this time, my arm was swollen at the site of the wound. It was turning black and blue. My arm felt numb and tingly, like when one of your limbs falls asleep.
As my friend read to me, we learned that there were three ways a person might detect if she has rabies.
1. At the site of the wound, it will begin to swell and turn black and blue.
I held up my arm as proof. “I have it!” I cried.
2. You will feel a sensation of numbness and tingling.
Bingo! My arm already felt as if it was asleep. I was going to have to get the big, giant needle in my belly button!
3. You will experience difficulty swallowing.
I did not have that symptom. Not until my friend read it to me from the encyclopedia. But the power of suggestion is strong, and I started to feel my throat closing up.
Judy dragged me by the shirtsleeve into her kitchen. There, she lined up glass after glass of water. I must have downed ten glasses of water! Twelve. Twenty. I’m certain I drank half of Lake Erie. We reasoned that as long as I could drink water—i.e., swallow—I did not have rabies.
In the end, my mother found out and took me to the doctor. Luckily, I was spared the baseball bat–sized needle; I did not have rabies after all. But they called the dog’s owner (yes, the famous Bruno Sammartino!) to find out when the dog had last had its shots.
I, and my Harriet-the-Spy top-secret spy mission, was discovered.
To this day, I still shrink down in my seat when we drive by the Sammartino house in our old neighborhood.
But that’s how my life as a writer began. As a spy. It was with that tiny Harriet-the-Spy notebook that I started to write. I stopped stuttering. I started to find my own voice.
Just as Ole Golly tells Harriet, if you’re going to be a writer, you’d better write everything down, and find your truth.
From the May/June 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Part of a special section commemorating the 50th anniversary of Harriet the Spy.