Dec 13, 2018

Re-reading Harriet the Spy

craft review by Anne-Marie Strohman

I was probably seven or eight when I read Harriet the Spy for the first time, and decades later, my memories of the book mostly center around how much I tried to be like Harriet the writer and failed. Three details stuck with me from childhood: the rule that clothes always feel better on the second day you wear them; the game of Town, where Harriet invents and records lives for imaginary people in her model town (pp. 3-7); and her hiding in the dumbwaiter to spy on an unsuspecting adult in order to gather material (pp. 43-46, for example). What commitment!

I tried valiantly to emulate Harriet. I truly believed clothes were more comfortable the second day, especially my favorite pair of green bell-bottoms. There were no dumbwaiters on our side of town—a lower-middle-class suburban neighborhood—though I sat next to our swamp cooler pretending it was one. I even attempted to recreate the first scene of the book in our side-yard mud. But try as I might, I could not stand to play Town for more than about five minutes. I found it utterly boring. And there were too many bugs outside. What this meant to me at the time was that writing sounded fun, but I didn’t have the focus or commitment to be a writer.

In re-reading the book, I was surprised to find that Harriet doesn’t either. (At least not at the beginning.)

While the book is about Harriet becoming a writer, it is also about Harriet making sense of the world around her, particularly the adults, and gaining empathy, especially for her classmates and friends. As her understanding of the world around her grows, so does her capacity to be a writer.


Facing the Audience

Harriet’s external journey to being a writer is directed by Ole Golly, her long-time nanny, and she moves from pure observation to considering an audience. First we find out that her observation notebooks were suggested by Ole Golly: “Ole Golly told me if I was going to be a writer I better write down everything, so I’m a spy that writes down everything” (p. 36). After Harriet has been through loss, rejection, acceptance, and is ready to face the world again, she gets a letter from Ole Golly, who always knows exactly the right thing to say to Harriet. She pushes Harriet toward being not just a notetaker, but a writer:

I have been thinking about you and I have decided that if you are ever going to be a writer it is time you got cracking. You are eleven years old and haven’t written a thing but notes. Make a story out of some of those notes and send it to me.” (p. 277)

I didn’t see as a child that Harriet’s game of Town, her observations of adults in her neighborhood, and her mean conclusions about her classmates are merely the fodder for being a writer. These activities in themselves don’t make her a writer. She must do something with them.

Action: Consider your audience. Collect things, yes, but then move from collecting into sharing.


Adult Influence: Ole Golly

We see Harriet move from dependence on Ole Golly’s advice to independence and making sense of the world on her own in the way she references Ole Golly in her notebooks. Her early observations are full of “OLE GOLLY SAYS”: for example, “IT’S JUST WHAT OLE GOLLY SAYS. RICH PEOPLE ARE BORING,” and “BOY, OLE GOLLY TOLD ME ONCE THAT SOME PEOPLE THINK THEY’RE PERFECT BUT SHE OUGHTA SEE THESE TWO” (45, 68).

By the end of the book, she is resigned to life without Ole Golly, though Ole Golly’s influence still affects Harriet. After observing the changes wrought in her classmates’ backyard club after her editorial in the school paper, she thinks, “I have a nice life. With or without Ole Golly, I have a nice life” (295). But on the final page, after her non-verbal reconciliation with Sport and Janie, she writes in her notebook, “OLE GOLLY IS RIGHT, SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO LIE” (300). However, she concludes her observations with a sentence that shows her moving on to a life without Ole Golly and embracing her role as a growing writer: “NOW THAT THINGS ARE BACK TO NORMAL I CAN GET SOME REAL WORK DONE” (300).

Harriet’s move from childhood toward adulthood and from notetaker to nascent writer both connect to the transition in her life of Ole Golly leaving (near the midpoint) and her emotionally letting go of Ole Golly at the end. This technique of making Ole Golly such a grand part of Harriet’s life and using Harriet’s changing relationship with Ole Golly as a sign of growth is both relatable and realistic. As writers, we can use adult characters in this way—to signal growth and connect to the real lives of kids which are determined so much by adults’ behavior.

Action: Don’t discount the role of adults. Consider an adult mentor whose relationship with the main character can be a barometer for the main character’s growth.



Despite the power of Ole Golly, the book consistently stays in Harriet’s perspective. It is her perspective on the adults and children in her world that gives the book its core voice. The book began as just the journal entries, as Kathleen Horning relates in telling of a conversation she had with Charlotte Zolotow, who was involved with the editorial process:

“Charlotte told me she and editor Ursula Nordstrom read them aloud to each other, hooting with laughter. All the while, Louise sat curled up in a chair, scowling. ‘You hate it, don’t you?’ she finally said. ‘Oh, no,’ said Ursula. ‘We love it! It’s just not a book yet. You need a story. Who is this girl and why is she so angry?’”

In developing the story with her editors, Fitzhugh stayed committed to Harriet’s point of view, no matter how wrong about the world and how callous to other people she is. Harriet says that her notebooks are observations, but they are really observations and judgments in equal measure. The consistent voice throughout shows readers that though Harriet does undergo significant change, she is still the same person who will be completely open in her “observations” privately and will use the power of her words publicly, but with consideration of her audience.

Action: As you develop your characters, ask who they are and why they are the way they are. As you write, stay squarely in your character’s point of view.


Voice Continuity

The typographical choice to have the notebooks and the newspapers in the same small caps gives a visual continuity that emphasizes Harriet’s voice. Though the newspaper items are more curated than the bare observations and judgments in her notebooks, they carry her distinct perspective on the world. This scaffolding allows room for her pièce de résistance—her retraction in the school paper of her notebook statements. Keeping character perspective and voice, especially when dealing with adult characters in the story, enables Fitzhugh to tell Harriet’s story and no one else’s.

We as readers can see the machinations of the parents—the hints Harriet sees in her experience with the psychiatrist, the phone conversation her mother has with him, the meeting her parents have with the school, and Miss Elson assigning her the job of editor for half of the year. From an adult’s perspective, this might be the story of a bright and imaginative child being given the space and tools to thrive. But from Harriet’s perspective, this is a story about her growth toward independence and taking on her role as a writer.

As writers, we can take a cue from Fitzhugh to always keep the child protagonist’s perspective, and to give hints about adult actions that might be inscrutable to a child. They do have a place in the story, though they are not central to Harriet’s emotional journey.

Action: Keep the voice of your character consistent. As your character grows, voice can signal that the character is still the same person.


A Scene Without Harriet?

One of Fitzhugh’s most interesting choices is including a scene without Harriet in it at all. How does she keep Harriet’s perspective when Harriet is off-stage? After Harriet sees her classmates with her notebook and witnesses Sport’s humiliation as Janie reads Harriet’s words aloud, Harriet realizes she doesn’t need to keep sitting there and “marched off in as dignified a way as possible” (p. 183). The narrative follows Harriet home and into bed in the middle of the afternoon.

With only a brief pause (a paragraph break), Fitzhugh moves the narrative back to the park: “In the park all the children sat around and read things aloud. These are some of the things they read: NOTES ON WHAT CARRIE ANDREWS THINKS OF MARION HAWTHORNE” (p. 183).

What follows is four pages of the children reading various notebook entries and reacting to them.

Harriet’s voice stays strong in this section because over half of the text is made up of her notebook entries. But we find that the narrator, who has seemed to be a close-third narrator from Harriet’s point of view, continues in the same voice, with the same types of observations the narrative voice makes throughout: “Beth Ellen rolled her big eyes and said nothing. She never said anything, so this wasn’t unusual” and “Carrie spoke up. She had a rather grating voice” (p. 185). This distinction between narrator and character gives us a glimpse of the narrator as separate from Harriet but aligned with her.

This section is from a Harriet-like point of view, the narrator’s point of view, but offers consistency in voice and perspective. I think it’s an important scene precisely because Harriet isn’t in it. Including this scene only works, I think, because of Harriet’s dominant presence through the notebooks and the consistent narrative voice. It’s almost as if the adult Harriet is narrating the story; the narrator’s voice is somewhat gentler but just as incisive as Harriet’s.

Action: Try writing a scene without your main character in it. What is the difference between your main character and your narrator? Is there one? Consider playing with the closeness of the two.


Adult Influence: Mother

At the end of the book, we finally see where Harriet gets her voice: from her mother. This reveal of Harriet’s other adult influences makes sense, as a subplot of the novel is Harriet’s fascination with adults both outside her house and inside. She first discovers a curiosity about Ole Golly having a family and then having a romance, and she ends with a fuller curiosity about her own parents.

With Ole Golly gone and the cook resistant to childcare, Harriet spends a lot more time with her parents, and we’re able to see Mrs. Welsch in action:

“‘You know, I was thinking the other day’—Mrs. Welsch seemed to be changing the subject—‘that Milly Andrews really hasn’t got good sense. Did you see her at the Peters’ party? Well, I don’t know what you were doing. Everybody was talking about it. Jack Peters was stoned out of his mind and falling off the bar stool, and there was Milly Andrews just smiling at him like an idiot” (p. 289).

Harriet does repeat this information in her newspaper column, but it is more important for informing readers of Harriet’s context for her observations and judgments than for the material it provides her.

Action: Don’t discount adults. Show your readers how the adults in your character’s life shape their story and make them who they are.



Harriet’s emotional arc comes to completion as she develops empathy. Her third to last notebook entry brings a number of narrative threads together—the Thanksgiving dance performance, her growth as a writer (“concentrating on description which she felt to be her weakest point” [p. 297]), and her movement toward empathy:



Then, as she sees Janie and Sport walking toward her through the park, she exhibits true attempts at human empathy. She imagines them as characters in her Town game:

“She made herself walk in Sport’s shoes, feeling the holes in his socks rub against his ankles. She pretended she had an itchy nose when Janie put one abstracted hand up to scratch. She felt what it would feel like to have freckles and yellow hair like Janie, then funny ears and skinny shoulders like Sport” (p. 299).

This moment is the culmination of all of Harriet’s growth, as a writer and as a person. She must know her audience, feel empathy for her characters, and feel empathy for her friends. She must be active in her attempts at empathy.

Action: Have empathy for your characters and for your readers. Let that show in your writing.


How to Become a Writer

Perhaps this is the greatest lesson for writers in Harriet the Spy, that observation and empathy rather than observation and judgment makes for a better writer and a better human. As I child, I felt Harriet’s distance from her classmates. I too felt like I had a nice life, but I also felt the exclusion from clubs and groups that Harriet experiences. I also thought the kind of thoughts that Harriet wrote down (but in journaling was always conscious that someone someday might read them).

Harriet the Spy was probably more formative for me as a person and as a writer than I remember or can possibly be conscious of now. I hope that some of the lessons of empathy stuck. Even though Harriet’s conclusion was that “SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO LIE,” and I may have taken that at face value as an eight year old, Fitzhugh is much more interested in empathy. The magic of the last notebook entries are that they show Harriet both understanding and not understanding her own growth. And perhaps this is the real lesson of re-reading the book—we never quite understand our own growth, and we are all more like Harriet than we imagine.

Action: Re-read one of your childhood favorites. How has your view of the book changed since childhood? What can you learn from it now as a writer?



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