Louise Fitzhugh,
Harriet the Spy
(Harper & Row, 1964;
Yearling, 2001)

When I was in grade school, we used to get The Weekly Reader. It was filled with articles about things like nature and science and current events, in an attempt to be like a sort of newspaper for 7-year-olds. Most of it was pretty unmemorable. Every other week, however, was a book order form where I ceremoniously picked as many books as I could ever hope to read, and narrowed it down to one or two that I had to have before pitching it to my mother.

One week, when I was around 7, Harriet The Spy was listed as a selection, and my mom wrote the check. It changed my life.

Harriet is a well-fleshed character with flaws and needs that she fills and covers up by meticulously recording the world around her in a notebook. Her relationship with her parents is not so good, and her nanny is pretty matter-of-fact. (Growing up, I didn't see her as the Rosie O'Donnell-type character that she was portrayed as in the movie version of the book, which was otherwise pretty true to the plot.)

For some reason, I identified with Harriet. I started carrying around a notebook and I'd spy on everyone, taking notes about who was saying what at the bowling alley I pretty much grew up in. It evolved into a love of writing and of journal-keeping in general that's survived to this day.

Harriet and her two best friends are verging. They're on the verge of growing up, vaguely on the verge of breaking apart, and on the verge of understanding the world the way an adult does. They process it differently. One is oblivious, one throws herself into schoolwork, and one, Harriet, processes it by writing it down.

It sounds dry and clinical this way, but Louise Fitzhugh is a genius at getting in there and explaining the views of a pre-teen in language that even the dullest among us could understand. She uses a liberal dose of humor and a lot of action, not to mention that her characters are created lovingly with a knack toward the quirky. In other words, both the characters and the plot are well-done -- something that a lot of writers for adults can't even do.

As soon as your girl-child is born, you should get it. More than that, every adult could probably get something out of it if they read with an open mind. And it might just start you off on a course of writing, just because of Fitzhugh's genius.

I probably wouldn't give it to children who are too young, under the age of about 6 or 7. Some of the themes that come up are a little harsh, but nothing that a Disney film wouldn't tackle. I have heard from a friend with young children that, after seeing the movie version, her children cried and asked why they were so mean to Harriet. (At one point, the requisite snob at Harriet's school starts an Anti-Spying Club that her two best friends join.) Essentially, if you let your kid watch The Lion King, you could let your kid read this book -- assuming she can read.

[ by Elizabeth Badurina ]
Rambles: 1 September 2001

Buy it from Amazon.com.