Becoming a Book Detective

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Although I grew up in a household of women who read, my reading education is a bit unusual in the academic world. In the in-law apartment my dad built for her, my grandmother lined the custom-made bookshelves with thick volumes of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. In these pages, I first met Agatha Christie, Victoria Holt, John le Carré, James Michener, and others. She and my mother (and then I) also loved Erle Stanley Gardner mysteries.

In school, in the late 1960s, I was in an experimental reading group that taught the skills of reading through a combination of SRA reading labs and speed-reading techniques. This skill-based education seemed removed from the reading I did at home—until I read Harriet the Spy, a book that challenged me in unexpected ways well beyond the level of comprehension and rate of reading.

As a child reader of adult texts at home, I was unencumbered by the expectation that books would “speak” to me or that I was supposed to “identify” with their characters in any way. Harriet the Spy seemed to ask these things of me — or, at least, the adult teachers/librarians who saw me reading Harriet the Spy introduced these possibilities. “How are you and Harriet alike? What would it be like to be her friend?” they would ask. I didn’t quite know what to say to these adults. I didn’t want to disappoint them, but I didn’t know how to perform as the reader they wanted me to be. Maybe this was just another kind of reading test? If so, I was bound to fail, because I despised Harriet M. Welsch. We were not at all alike. Most definitely, I did not want to be her friend.

Harriet grew up in a privileged household and took her situation for granted. To me, one of six kids growing up in a working-class extended family, she had everything. She had privacy — no brothers and sisters to bug her. She had parents who left her alone — no chores to do, no need to “contribute” to the family. She had Ole Golly. We both had the freedom to roam that today’s kids don’t seem to have — but she had the Upper East Side and I had a small Worcester, Massachusetts, suburb. She had all those places to go, interesting ways of getting there, all those people to observe. But what a whiner Harriet was. No recognition of the benefits she enjoyed. No appreciation of how good she had it.

What was I to do about this character I was supposed to like, but didn’t? I could report on the differences between me and Harriet, but I didn’t think the differences of socioeconomic class that mattered to me were what mattered to my teachers. These differences overwhelmed any sense of identifying with Harriet that I felt charged to feel. I fretted over the likelihood that if I answered my teachers honestly, I would disappoint them, or, worse, I would fail some test of readerliness. When I finally sought advice from the best reader I knew, my mother said: “It’s a book. If you liked it, good; if you didn’t, don’t read it again.”

I found such release in those words, such permission to find my own reading way. Those words told me to embrace Harriet’s fictionality. I could understand Harriet as a character without liking Harriet as a person. I could step back — away from trying to identify with her — to see her as a writer’s creation, with layers of literal and figurative meaning and textured by idiosyncratic details that made her come alive in the pages of a book. I could look at how her place in the family and in the city mapped her character. I could understand how and why the book shaped her loneliness and sense of abandonment within the context of her family’s wealth. I could look at how the book functioned as a book, how its words and structure made vital its ethical plea about privacy and betrayal. In observing Harriet, I could become the best detective ever, looking for clues to how and why books work — whether I liked them or not.

From the May/June 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Part of a special section commemorating the 50th anniversary of Harriet the Spy.

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Cathryn M. Mercier About Cathryn M. Mercier

Cathryn M. Mercier is the director of the Simmons College Center for the Study of Children’s Literature in Boston, Massachusetts.

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