On Spies and Purple Socks and Such


Harriet the Spy by Louise FitzhughIf you were a queer kid like me growing up in the sixties, I hope you were fortunate enough to come across books by Louise Fitzhugh. She may have saved your life, or at least made it a bit more comfortable.

When I was eleven, I didn’t know I was gay; I only knew that I felt different from other people, even from my own family. I was beginning to try to put together the puzzle pieces: I knew I liked boys, the clothes they wore, and the things they did, but I knew I didn’t want to marry one. My secret engagement to the girl across the street, which had seemed like a real possibility when she first accepted my proposal at age seven, was on the rocks; she was beginning to show an interest in boys and would laugh at me whenever I reminded her of her promise. If I didn’t keep it quiet, I figured it wouldn’t be long before she started laughing at me in the presence of other girls.

I had to go underground.

Enter Harriet M. Welsch, who became my role model and savior. I read Harriet the Spy soon after it came out (and I now bless the school librarian who put it on the library shelves for me to find). I was absolutely shocked by it at the time. Shocked that Harriet could defy her parents and her friends and still survive. Shocked that she loved and missed Ole Golly so much that she threw a shoe at her father to express her anger. Shocked that an adult author could know so well what really went on in the minds of children.

But the thing that shocked me the most about Harriet was her cross-dressing. It’s an aspect of the novel that girls today would miss entirely (thank goodness!), but in 1965 Harriet’s spy clothes struck me as revolutionary. Back then, girls in blue jeans and hooded sweatshirts were uncommon, though not unheard of. But Harriet’s high-top sneakers were solely boys’ wear. I know for sure, because I used to beg my otherwise indulgent, liberal parents for them, and they refused, although they bought them regularly for my brothers.

I’ve read elsewhere of women my age who were inspired to keep notebooks and start their own spy routes, eat tomato sandwiches, and leave anonymous notes after reading Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret. At eleven I didn’t particularly like tomatoes, didn’t have the patience to write, and already had a spy route, so I wasn’t inspired to start any of those things. What Harriet did inspire me to do was to experiment with cross-dressing. I used whatever money I earned doing odd jobs to buy boys’ clothes on the sly and then went into other neighborhoods to play at passing as a boy. When an old man in a grocery store called me “Sonny,” I knew I had passed the test. It was remarkably easy to do, and it was as deliciously thrilling as sneaking into Agatha K. Plumber’s dumbwaiter. Over the course of a year, I developed an extensive wardrobe of boys’ clothes, which I kept hidden at the back of my closet when I wasn’t wearing them as my own version of a spy uniform.

It really came as no surprise to me to learn that at the time she was writing Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh had been a butch known within the lesbian community as Willie. When she came into a large inheritance, she bought men’s clothes and had them tailored for her, vowing never again to wear women’s clothes. I don’t know if she consciously thought of Harriet as cross-dresser, but I am certainly not the only one to have recognized her as a kindred spirit.

Which brings me to the purple socks.

Harriet the Spy fans will remember the Boy with the Purple Socks as a kid in Harriet’s class who was so boring no one ever bothered to learn his name. “Whoever heard of purple socks?” Harriet wonders in chapter two. “She figured it was lucky he wore them; otherwise no one would have even known he was there at all.” He later tells his classmates that his mother wanted him to dress completely in purple so he would stand out in a crowd, but he refused to comply, except for the socks. And, as it turns out, the purple socks do make him stand out in a crowd, not to the masses but to a smaller group of kindred spirits. He also stands out to readers in the gay community, for whom the color purple has symbolic meaning. The purple socks are representative of the details Fitzhugh put into her books that resonate with a gay audience used to reading between the lines.

Reading Harriet the Spy today as an adult, I find a queer subtext throughout. Not only is Harriet the quintessential baby butch, but her best friends, Sport and Janie, run exactly contrary to gender stereotypes. Sport acts as the homemaker and nurturing caretaker of his novelist father, while Janie the scientist plans to blow up the world one day. It was as if Fitzhugh was telling us kids back in the sixties that you didn’t have to play by society’s rules, the first lesson a queer kid has to learn in order to be happy. Harriet’s whole ordeal — being ostracized by her friends after they invade her privacy by reading her spy notebook — sounds to me very much like a coming-out story. Her parents’ response to it all is to take her to a psychiatrist for analysis. Sound familiar? Most importantly, the sage Ole Golly resolves matters with a piece of advice that takes on special meaning for queer kids:

Sometimes you have to lie. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.

It is this piece of advice, with all the focus on the first sentence, that aroused adult ire, most notoriously in the pages of this very magazine in a biting editorial by Ruth Hill Viguers titled “On Spies and Applesauce and Such.” Ironically, these indignant adults were generally the same ones who would have made life difficult for gay people (the ones not lying about their identities) or for anyone who refused to conform to their standards. But for gay kids focusing equally on both sentences, the advice turned out to be a lifesaver. All those years ago, whether consciously or unconsciously, Louise Fitzhugh provided us with the tools for survival.

In all her books, from Suzuki Beane to Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change, the message is inherent: Be true to yourself. Refuse to conform. Find your own way, even if your friends and family threaten to reject you. It will be painful, but you will survive. This was pretty powerful stuff for those of us who read her books when we were young.

I doubt that Harriet the Spy has quite the same impact on nascent gay readers now, and that’s probably a good sign. It’s indicative of the progress our society has made over the past forty years. There’s far greater visibility for gays and lesbians in mainstream culture, and many kids now go to schools where they have openly gay teachers and can join a Gay Straight Alliance group. There is also now a growing body of gay literature for teens and even younger children in which they can see themselves in a positive light. That’s not to say that it’s any easier for kids today grappling with their own queer identities. But it may make it a bit easier to find the keys to their own survival.

More Reading Between the Lines

Not every young reader is ready for overt self-examination; some may prefer to find themselves in books that don’t explicitly deal with gay themes but that may strike a chord nonetheless.

Molly Bang Goose (Blue Sky/Scholastic, 1996)
Although not specifically about gay identity, this story will certainly resonate as an allegory with anyone who has ever felt out of place at home. Three nearly wordless double-page spreads dramatically set the scene as a goose egg falls out of its nest during a violent rainstorm and rolls down a hole into a den of woodchucks. The egg hatches soon thereafter, and the woodchucks immediately accept their newest family member. But the gosling never feels completely at home in her family and eventually realizes that she must set off on her own to see if she can find what she is missing.

Tomie dePaola Oliver Button Is a Sissy (Harcourt, 1979)
The boys at school tease Oliver and call him a sissy because he prefers reading, drawing, and jumping rope to sports. Oliver’s parents push him to participate in sports (just to get some exercise), but Oliver refuses, opting instead for a tap-dancing class. A now-classic portrait of a gentle boy who refuses to bow to peer pressure.

Alexis De Veaux An Enchanted Hair Tale; illus. by Cheryl Hanna (HarperCollins, 1987)
It’s Sudan’s hair — a “fan daggle of locks and lions and lagoons” — that sets him apart from his peers. Grownups fear his hair, and neighborhood kids tease him mercilessly: “and wherever Sudan went, / people saw his head; / they pointed and said, / ’He’s strange. He’s queer. He’s different.’” Upset, Sudan storms away and, far from home, stumbles upon a whole family of folks with enchanted hair who admire him and help him celebrate his differences. De Veaux’s poem deals with the necessity of leaving home to find a community of kindred spirits, an aspect of reality for most gays and lesbians that’s rarely addressed in gay/lesbian literature for teens. But the idea that there are others out there who are like you can be extremely comforting to kids who, like Sudan, are called “queer.”

Glen Huser Stitches (Groundwood, 2003)
Travis is a kid who has been teased since he was in first grade. First, it was words like girlie. As he grew older, it was “Sissy. Crybaby. Fruitfly. Fagface.” As he enters junior high school, his interests in sewing, puppetry, and theater are encouraged, first by an English teacher and then a home economics teacher, but these same interests are part of what mark him as a target for continued bullying. This thought-provoking, touching novel never overtly addresses Travis’s sexuality, because Travis himself is barely beginning to consider that aspect of his identity. Instead, it focuses on the facets of Travis’s personality that make him the person he is. While the book doesn’t shy away from the harsh reality of bullying and violence, it nonetheless remains an uplifting story full of warmth, humor, and hope.

J. K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Levine/Scholastic, 1997)
Many adults have found a queer subtext in the Harry Potter books, especially the first volume in the series. Not only is Harry an outsider within his own family, but they expect him to repress the parts of himself that make him stand out as different. They are embarrassed by him and, quite literally, keep him in the closet (the cupboard under the stairs). As he approaches puberty, he learns that there are others like him who share the qualities his family finds repugnant. There is, in fact, an entire subculture that co-exists with the Muggle mainstream, a parallel culture that goes largely unseen unless you know the small signs to look for. Harry is introduced to this world by a trusted guide, Hagrid, and, for the first time, he feels at home.

Andrea U’Ren Pugdog (Farrar, 2001)
Mike assumes his pugdog is male because of his tough exterior and rough-and-tumble personality. But when a veterinarian informs him that Pugdog is female, Mike completely changes the way he interacts with his dog, much to Pugdog’s displeasure. Hilarious illustrations of a slobbering Pugdog — and a prissy poodle named Harry — help drive home the point about the importance of accepting individual differences.

From the January/February 2005 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

For more in The Horn Book’s Pride Month series, click on the tag LGBT Pride 2016.
Kathleen T. Horning
Kathleen T. Horning
Kathleen T. Horning is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books and teaches a popular online course for ALSC on the history of the Newbery and Caldecott medals.
Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


According to Kathleen this book was a life savior in early 60s, but this is a savior at these days also. I am also born of the 1986 Diana. If I could only have read this book in my early 7th grade, it would have saved my life much more and I would have become a different person that I am now.

Posted : Mar 16, 2014 07:24

Haddayr Copley-Woods

I can't thank you enough for this insightful post. I was born in 1970 and also missed the cross-dressing, but I KNEW there was a reason I identified so closely with Harriet, beyond the fact that I was a writer and a prickly angry girl. I felt different in a profound way -- in a way she seemed to model. Now I get it and I am so grateful for it even more. Thank you so much!

Posted : Jun 21, 2013 04:24


"I doubt that Harriet the Spy has quite the same impact on nascent gay readers now, and that’s probably a good sign." I am definitely a reader "of today" (born 1986), and Harriet the Spy was one of the most formative books for me as a queer girl. I did miss Harriet's cross-dressing, but not the gender-bending in Harriet's friend group, nor Ole Golly's (played by Rosie O'Donnell in the 1996 Nickelodeon films adaptation) role as a queer role model. As for Harriet's exposure and subsequent bullying, this has been the piece of the novel and film that I have related to the most over the years. As a bisexual femme, I have often been the target of anger and group rejection when I am "outed," even when I have never made my sexual orientation a secret! Every time I am reminded of how Harriet is targeted for "inappropriate" behavior that she had never understood as inappropriate. Maybe it is a bad sign that even in today's "more tolerant" atmosphere for gay people, certain queers have an equally hard time passing within this new homonormativity, and are subsequently outed, bullied and ostracized, sometimes even by gay peers, for not fitting the standard.

Posted : Mar 29, 2013 09:29


Community matters. Stay up to date on breaking news, trends, reviews, and more.

Get access to reviews of books, ebooks, and more