Fifty Years of Novel Exploits

harriet at 50 banner Fifty Years of Novel Exploits

Harriet M. Welsch is celebrating her sixty-first birthday with a bottle of pinot noir. She’s wearing an expensive new pair of glasses, a splurge from the last royalty check. Her spy novel Secrets has gone viral, and she just signed a contract for the series. Reviews have hailed her detective heroine’s fearless curiosity and unexpurgated soliloquies. Tomorrow she’s got an interview with a reporter who somehow tracked down a couple of old notebooks she thought had been lost in her parents’ move from their brownstone to a classy retirement community. Thank God for money! Sport taught her that. She shouldn’t be so snarky with him, but hey, she’s snarky with everybody. People are a mess. She’s been re-reading Henry James and Dostoyevsky for perspective, easy to lose when you hit the bestseller list. She wonders what Ole Golly (RIP) would think of her observations on the human condition now. At least she doesn’t have to apologize for them. She did, once, years ago. What a lie! Ah well, what’s a writer but a professional liar — in the interest of truth?

While Harriet is celebrating, I’m remembering high points in our relationship. The first of these moments came shortly after Harriet appeared fully fledged at age eleven to the astonished world of 1964. Two years and much controversy later, the University of Chicago hosted a conference in which the head of the (in)famous Orthogenic School said:

Spying presents a distorted picture and so does not really satisfy the curiosity that motivates the spying. I am, therefore, not convinced that Harriet’s continuing to spy at the end of this book is a very desirable solution…the statement of a problem without any resolution carries with it the danger of intensifying it by appearing to present it as a desirable model for behavior.

In the back of the audience, I was a lowly twenty-four-year-old master’s degree student with only a year’s experience as a children’s librarian, but I brashly stood up during the Q&A and rose to Harriet’s psychological and aesthetic defense: if children’s literature was real literature, its characters must reflect real human behavior, not educational precepts; we owed that much to children, their books, and our role as advocates for both. Real characters were not always desirable models for behavior, and realistic situations did not always have ideal solutions. And furthermore (!), kids have to spy if adults won’t tell them what they want to know. Sometimes silence is a lie — true of children’s books, as well as adults who censor them. This was my first professional statement in public, and my hands were shaking with fear and passion. [Cue loud, dramatic 1960s music.]

My second memorable moment with Harriet came about seven years later, after I had become editor of Booklist’s children’s section. In comparing a new novel to Harriet the Spy, I went to look up the Booklist review citation and, behold — there wasn’t one. Booklist reviewed only recommended titles but kept records on all books received, so I checked the back files, and there was Harriet, deemed unsuitable for children and rejected for purchase in libraries by the American Library Association gatekeepers! I reeled in shock. [Cue loud, dramatic 1970s music.]

Around seven years later, in a neatly folkloric pattern of three, I wrote a paper on Harriet the Spy for a doctoral course in the University of Chicago’s English department and was amazed at the famous professor’s uninformed negative comments in response to my hypothesizing the book’s reflection of a new order: childish adults failing adultish children. These were the days before common computer use among penniless doctoral students, so I Wited-Out his comments, Xeroxed the paper, and submitted it to a British journal, which redeemed my opinion by publishing it. [Cue loud, dramatic 1980s music.]

In the decades after these momentous events, I reviewed myriad books and taught Harriet the Spy annually until retiring. My four copies are battered and torn. The one I re-read for this piece actually bore the old marginalia from that long-ago doctoral paper and fell apart at page 117. During those intervening years, the students I taught went from regarding Harriet the Spy as a new novel banned for setting a bad example to remembering reading it themselves when they were kids. Now the book is de rigueur, included on The Horn Book’s Children’s Classics booklist for parents; translated into German, French, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, and Portuguese; and cited by an ex–CIA officer as inspiration for her career.

Times change, and even Harriet has moved on from her accustomed routines, leaving behind the old game of Town for bigger stakes. She is at the height of her powers, ever an unnerving presence. To her new fans, she’s full of surprises. To her old friends, she’s no surprise at all.

Harriet bites into a tomato sandwich and picks up her pen.

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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Betsy Hearne About Betsy Hearne

Betsy Hearne is a professor emerita and former director of the Center for Children’s Books at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

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