Where to begin with how important Harriet the Spy has been in my life? I guess I’ll have to start with my childhood. I was in fourth grade, at a school book fair. I’d forgotten to bring money that day, which was a problem because there was one book I was desperate to have. It had a bright orange cover with bold yellow type and a girl wearing glasses climbing all over it. And somehow I knew I was going to love it and I had to read it. AND IT WAS THE ONLY COPY AT THE FAIR. So I did what any right-thinking person would do under the circumstances: I hid it. Specifically, I put it at the bottom of a pile of very drippy-looking books (I’m guessing they were Winnie-the-Pooh; I detested Winnie-the-Pooh back then) and kept my fingers crossed that no one would find it and I could buy it the next day. Which I did. And Harriet has been a part of my life ever since.
It occurs to me now that this is probably the sort of thing Harriet herself would have done in a similar situation. And that in turn tells you why she’s a character who has endured for so long. She’s resourceful, quick, a little unscrupulous, and entirely recognizable. A real person, in other words. You might not like her (and I’m still not sure I do), but you know this girl.
That school book fair was the first time I remember Harriet being important to me. The second time came much later. I was a young assistant editor, starting out in children’s books. I’d been promoted and assigned a mass market series to edit. It was a steady-selling series for the publisher, and I was excited to be working on something so substantial. Needless to say, I took my responsibilities very seriously. This manuscript was going to be IN PRINT, after all. It was going to be a book! It had to be good! The future of the nation’s youth and the success of the series were resting on my shoulders alone! (I’m exaggerating just a bit, but I really did feel this way.) Unfortunately, the manuscript was about the worst thing I’d ever read. I couldn’t even articulate why it was so awful, but it was complete dreck, and I had to fix it. Or at least make it readable and enjoyable enough to sell ten thousand copies. And I had absolutely no idea how to do this.
Okay, I said to myself. Think about some other books, books you love. What makes them so great? That’s when I remembered Harriet. And I went back and read it — really read it, this time. I took it apart, technically. I began to understand how good it is. And even though the manuscript I was working on was a YA book and Harriet was a middle-grade novel, I learned things from Harriet about dialogue, structure, character, action, and pacing that I was able to apply, in a different way, to the problematic manuscript I had to edit. Harriet saved my bacon that time, and also made me think about books and reading and writing in a new way. It’s actually ironic that Harriet helped me edit a conventional YA romance, because Harriet is the complete opposite of that; it is in fact a wildly subversive novel. Which of course only makes me love it more.
What’s so revolutionary about it? Let’s start with the fact that Harriet is not a nice little girl. She does illegal things when she spies. If she doesn’t actually break into Mrs. Agatha K. Plumber’s house, for instance, she comes pretty close. She writes terrible things about people — not just the people she spies on, but also her best friends. The thing is, she’s not doing it because she’s mean (although she certainly has her mean moments). She’s doing it because she’s honest and because she’s compelled to do it. The note-taking is part of who she is, what she is training herself to be: a writer and observer. It’s work, and she takes it very seriously. And her friends accept this about her, even after she hurts them with her brutally honest observations. They know she can’t change. Even when she’s forced to apologize, she does it out of practical necessity, because she wants to keep her friends, not because she really means it. And then she goes back to doing exactly what she was doing before. She hasn’t changed one bit, and her friends know it.
Just think about all of this! It’s a giant raspberry to the school of thought that says, A-character-in-a-children’s-book-must-change-and-grow-throughout-the-course-of-the-story. Or to the school that says, A-character-must-be-essentially-good-and-lovable. In fact, any rules or precepts or cutesy-poo ideas you might have had about children’s books fly right out the window when you read Harriet the Spy. There is no great moral lesson to be learned, no transformative change that happens to the protagonist. Above all, there is no tidiness. Harriet is real life in all its messiness and ambiguity, populated by real people who are also messy and ambiguous.
There is yet another reason to love Harriet, and it’s another editorial story, this one about its origin. In the book Dear Genius, the great Ursula Nordstrom, the visionary editor at Harper & Row during its golden era, writes about how Harriet the Spy came to be published. It all started with a reader’s report from Charlotte Zolotow, who was then a senior editor, urging Ursula to read the manuscript. “You have to get this writer to come in and talk. This isn’t a book, but it could be,” she wrote enthusiastically. And on what did she base her enthusiasm? Pages of Louise Fitzhugh’s drawings and disconnected narrative, which seemed to consist mostly of Harriet’s spy entries. Somehow Charlotte was able to see past this jumble of words and envision a book. She and Ursula worked with the author and helped her find the characters and story that became Harriet.
In this age of acquiring manuscripts from debut authors that have to be perfect or nearly perfect to be signed on, I find this story to be an inspiration, and most of all a reminder: you have to keep an open mind about the creative process. It’s messy and unpredictable and risky. But the rewards of taking that leap of faith are boundless.
Just read Harriet again and see.
From the May/June 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Part of a special section commemorating the 50th anniversary of Harriet the Spy.