Harriet the Spy
First published 1964
My history with this book
I remember really loving this book when I first read it (around age 8), but I remembered very little about it, other than the barest of plot outlines. I do remember being inspired to start writing my thoughts and observations in a notebook, but I don’t think the hobby lasted very long.
I really loved this book the second time around, and I found that it affected my deeply.
Harriet is an intelligent, interesting kid, and she’s very much her own person even at age 11. She wants to be a spy, and she’s in already in training. Every day after school, she walks her neighborhood, spying on her neighbors and writing down her observations. She also observes her classmates, and her notes on them are almost clinical in their unblemished truth.
I really felt for Harriet. Yes, she’s not the kindest child, but she’s not a bad person, and all of the adults in her life have abandoned her. Her parents have abdicated all responsibility to her nanny, Ole Golly, over the years, and then one day, Ole Golly leaves with no notice, telling Harriet that she doesn’t need her anymore. This broke my heart. Yes, Harriet is too old to have a nanny, but Ole Golly leaving so abruptly feels like a huge betrayal. Harriet kind of losing her mind after that isn’t surprising.
I had so many feelings while reading this book, and I don’t remember being this affected by it as a kid. I really liked Harriet.The things Harriet writes in her notebook are mean, but they’re just her inner monologue in written form and they were never meant for public consumption. What the other kids do to Harriet felt much worse to me. I feel like this is a good starting point for a discussion with kids. You could ask your child what they think of Harriet, her actions, and what happens to her.
One thing I remembered from childhood is a scene where Harriet is so caught up in writing in her notebook that she doesn’t notice that her class has ended, and her teacher almost gets the notebook from her. That scene really stuck in my mind, probably because I was always sneaking books into class and trying to read them.
When I first finished re-reading the book, I felt as though maybe the ending was too abrupt. But after thinking about it for a few days and reading the last few pages again, I decided it made sense. Harriet has learned some compassion and she’s trying to put herself in her friends’ shoes. And kids are so changeable at that age. One day you’re in a screaming fight, the next day you’re back to being best friends.
Does it hold up?
Yes! It doesn’t feel dated, especially considering it was written over 50 years ago. It’s a timeless classic. And the treatment of gender roles feels pretty progressive for a book written in the 60s. Harriet’s interests steer clear of anything stereotypically girly, her female friend Janie is a mad scientist, and her male friend Scout keeps house for himself and his father.
Is there any objectionable content?
Can you read it aloud?
It’s a little long for reading aloud.
Would I want my kid to read it?
The book is still in print and available in print and as an ebook. It should be widely available in libraries.