Unlike our lucky essayists (starting with Kathleen T. Horning), I never read Harriet the Spy as a child. Sure, it was around — I remember Susan Walley doing a book report on Harriet in the sixth grade — but I had learned by then what finks would do to boys who read books with a girl’s name in the title.
It’s too bad, because Harriet the Spy has a lot to say about sixth-grade finks and bullies, although the solutions displayed for dealing with them are hardly au courant: outwit them when you can; endure them when you can’t; lie. But always tell the truth to yourself, even when that means taking some responsibility for what caused you to be picked on in the first place. That is not a frequent message in today’s books for children, which prefer a firmer line between victim and bully — or at least prefer narratives in which such a line seems like a reasonable one to draw.
Harriet M. Welsch’s world is one of unremarked privilege (a live-in cook and nanny?), but its people are complicated. Harriet’s seemingly ornamental mother loves and knows her better than Harriet thinks. Janie Gibbs might be able to blow up the world, but she isn’t tough enough to get out of dancing school. For all her virtues, Ole Golly seems like she could be awfully oppressive at a dinner party. And while we love Harriet, she can be an obtuse blockhead. “If adults would only learn how obvious they are,” she thinks as Ole Golly’s boyfriend just tries to be nice to her; but Harriet’s self-dramatizing (“ARE THEY GOING TO KILL ME? IS THIS MY LAST VIEW OF CARL SCHURZ PARK?”) reveals a little girl not nearly as smart as she thinks she is. Only Marion Hawthorne, Lady Hitler herself, seems immune to complexity, but one senses she will get by just fine without it.
But what about The Boy with the Purple Socks? As a chronic purple-sock wearer myself, I take a special interest in this minor but intriguing character. K. T. Horning sees in him a coded message to gay and lesbian readers (see “On Spies and Purple Socks and Such,” January/February 2005 Horn Book Magazine), but I think he is rather the anti-Harriet. He wears purple socks only at the behest of his mother, afraid she would lose her otherwise forgettable child. And he gives up this one marginally interesting thing about himself just to go along with Marion’s Gang of Four. And lest we forget: the now green-socked fink votes against Harriet’s appointment as editor of the Sixth Grade Page. He’s nobody’s hero.
I wish I could tell him, and eleven-year-old me, that going-along-to-get-along doesn’t get you anywhere. Better to risk the bullies, better to risk even the friendships, than to be something you’re not. Betrayed by her art as much as her friends, Harriet waits her way through the consequences and lies her way out of them. It’s worth it. Eventually.
From the May/June 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.