Thoughts on Reading Harriet the Spy as an Adult

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

As part of my quest to write coming-of-age stories that would appeal to middle graders, I went back to read my favorite books from that time. Harriet the Spy was one of the first books that I reread. When I was young, I loved Harriet the Spy because she was a working writer. She wrote every day in her notebook. She was my role model. I even had a red hoodie. But I didn't have a spy route. That was not something that I would do. However, I did explore the inner terrains of my thoughts and feelings and recorded them faithfully in my trusted notebook.

If you haven't read Harriet the Spy and would like to, here is where you should probably stop reading. Spoilers abound. In the book, Harriet's friends and classmates read her notebook. They discover that she has written many unflattering things about them. Harriet is ostracized. Her classmates even form a Spy Catcher's Club. Also, during this time, Harriet loses her nanny and confidante, Ole Golly, who has fallen in love and moves away to be with her fiancé. Ole Golly tells Harriet that it's time, that Harriet has grown up and no longer needs a nanny. When Ole Golly is gone and dire things begin to occur, Harriet is not so sure.

As an adult reading this book, I fell in love again with Harriet. Here she is, at the start of the book, with her friend Sport, saying that they are going to play a game, which basically consists of making up a story. Sport is baffled. Why can't they play something normal? Harriet tries to explain to him the wonder of this activity but to no avail. Then there are the tender, wise scenes with Ole Golly, particularly the one where Harriet meets Ole Golly's boyfriend and goes to the movies with them. These moments are pure gold.

But this time, I was unsatisfied with the ending. That feels like sacrilege to say, but hear me out. In the story, Harriet gets in trouble with her peers because she wrote nasty things in her notebook, and they find out. At school, the teacher takes away Harriet's notebook because she's spending all her time writing in it instead of paying attention in class. In the end, Harriet's mother convinces the principal to let Harriet be editor of the school newspaper. As editor, Harriet does write an apology to her friends, but she continues to write nasty pieces about her other classmates and other people in the community. I ended up wishing that Harriet had figured out the solution to her problem, and feeling that she hadn't learned as much as she needed to.  It was something I hadn't thought of as a child, but as an adult, it really felt like a missed opportunity. Don't get me wrong. I will always love Harriet the Spy. I just wanted her to be a better writer by the end.