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Eccentric, Subversive, 11 Years Old: Celebrating 50 Years Of 'Harriet the Spy'

A sliver of the author's personal Western canon, with 'Harriet the Spy' in the No. 1 spot. (Sharon Brody/WBUR)
A sliver of the author's personal Western canon, with 'Harriet the Spy' in the No. 1 spot. (Sharon Brody/WBUR)
This article is more than 5 years old.

Sometimes, you just need to round up your mom and a bag of snacks and head west on an epic road trip.

Destination: a shrine to "Harriet the Spy."

The groundbreaking novel by Louise Fitzhugh was published in 1964. In honor of the golden anniversary, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, has a special exhibit featuring original drawings, editor's correspondence and more.

“Harriet the Spy” is my favorite book. Ever. Chances are, you or somebody you know feels the same way. So nothing I say here is original. But if that stopped me from expressing myself, I’d have been silent since birth, and we all know how that turned out.

['Harriet' author] Fitzhugh created a best-selling classic out of a subversive set of ideas for the early 1960s. She challenged the norms of the time and of all polite society.

In case you haven't met Harriet, these are the basics: She's 11 years old and resides on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Harriet is curious about everyone and everything and takes notes on all her observations in a series of composition books. She maintains a regular spy route of homes and businesses in her neighborhood, while also studying her classmates in their natural habitat. She pretty much lives in jeans and a hoodie. She eats a staggering amount of tomato sandwiches. She is not docile. Harriet needs to write the way a shark needs to swim.

The book is near about perfect.

Back in the day, reading the novel 11 times, I never thought about subtext. I just wished I could either be Harriet or have a friend like her. I aspired to whichever came first.

From my current vantage point, I understand that more was at stake. The author was not only telling a great story about a smart and funny kid, but also endorsing eccentricity. Fitzhugh created a best-selling classic out of a subversive set of ideas for the early 1960s. She challenged the norms of the time and of all polite society.

As a kid, my kinship with Harriet felt unique. Yet that bond related to the way Fitzhugh captured a common yearning for the intertwining joys of individuality, companionship, laughter, imagination and the art of not missing a trick.

Beyond being hardwired with some of the same tendencies as the protagonist (eavesdropping, documenting, resisting dance class, never getting enough tomato sandwiches), I also was seeking role models of nonconformity. And hoo-boy, did I hit the jackpot with Harriet.

Ex-Libris: The author's tattered, totemic copy of her favorite, oft-read novel. (Sharon Brody/Courtesy)
Ex-Libris: The author's tattered, totemic copy of her favorite, oft-read novel. (Sharon Brody/Courtesy)

This was another era. Feminism had not yet gained traction. Any small foothold felt like a victory.

Harriet was unusual in a lot of ways that spoke to me. This fictional preteen, during an age of prissy restrictions for girls, served as a beacon for boldness in attitude and comfort in garmentry. Beyond that, she asked questions, and she challenged the status quo. She did things her way and learned a few lessons about when it does and doesn't make sense to bend. Harriet was an early — perhaps the first — richly imagined kid-lit girl in America who was not sweet, who bucked authority, and who appeared to be inventing herself according to her own damned specifications.

This child spy altered my view of what’s possible in life, and that sort of inspiration doesn’t come along every day. So you can understand why “Harriet the Spy” became my childhood Bible, and why I was compelled to make the pilgrimage to Amherst. My mother was the obvious choice to join the trek: She’s fun, she tolerates my vicissitudes, and she also paid for my Yearling edition lo, those many years ago. Best 75 cents she ever spent.

I brought along my tattered copy. This is not unlike bringing coals to Newcastle, since the museum is full of Harriet. I simply needed the book in my hands as I immersed in my heroine’s origin story.

The tale told by Fitzhugh is important to me, but it’s hard to overstate how much I treasure the actual paperback. One touch of that orange cover, and I'm right back on my belly on the shag rug, breathing in every word as only a 9-year-old can.

This fictional preteen, during an age of prissy restrictions for girls, served as a beacon for boldness in attitude and comfort in garmentry.

Also, in its crumbling glory, my aging book still preserves my family’s original contributions. My big brothers and I often enhanced our books by filling the margins with our crudely drawn flipbook animation. “Harriet the Spy” offers the signature motif of one brother: a rocket lifting off, dropping its boosters, orbiting the moon, returning to earth and splashing down. This brother, by the way? He’s spent a couple decades as a meteorologist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Nostalgia does not get a lot cooler than this.

Plus: Try creating memories like that with an e-book. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Meanwhile, my other brother plays a key role. I told him about this mission to commune with the soul of the masterpiece that — once I’d found it — changed me forever. And, as is the way of brothers from the dawn of time, he reminded me that, in fact, I was wrong. He had done the finding. He’d carried the book home, read it once, deemed it worthy, and returned it to the school library. After which, he explained, “you ‘discovered’ it…Columbus-style.”

Well, we stake our claims where we will. The title page of "Harriet the Spy" features, in my elementary school scrawl, proof of ownership: “Property of Sharon Brody.” And, in faded pencil, another two words constitute the review that still says it all: “the best.”


Editor's note: “Harriet the Spy Turns Fifty” ends its run at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art on November 30.


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Sharon Brody is the voice of WBUR's weekend mornings. On Saturdays and Sundays, she anchors the news for Weekend Edition and other popular programs.

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