How We Read Harriet the Spy as Children’s Literature

Samantha Scholl

Harriet the Spy is a book in the children’s literature section written by Louise Fitzhugh that captures the life of an eleven-year-old girl living in New York. Harriet lives with her parents and a governess who is great at giving advice. This is not an ordinary eleven-year-old girl however; she has big dreams of becoming a spy and has her own spy route around her neighborhood. She writes notes in her spy notebook about the things she observes and her own judgments. When this notebook falls into the wrong hands however, Harriet’s world is turned upside down.

When reading reviews and other critical and professional articles on Harriet the Spy, many different standpoints arise in the viewer’s creation of the opinions on Harriet’s character. Some very much appreciate Harriet’s character, while others do not. Some people feel she is a narcissist and an unlikeable child, while others see her as a heroine. These differences in opinions, I think, are homologous to how people choose to define children’s literature and whether or not they feel Harriet is relatable to them. Many readers view Harriet as a heroine and her story as a brutally honest portrayal of childhood and the readers who rave about it have put it on a high pedestal. Many readers go into Harriet the Spy looking for a great children’s tale based on the good remarks they have heard. These readers are looking to feel something, just like you know you’re supposed to feel shock and amazement when looking at the Mona Lisa, but everyone does not share this view of Harriet’s heroine tendencies.
Next, I will explain different viewpoints and feelings on children’s literature and apply them to different views of the character Harriet in Harriet the Spy. I will also examine Harriet’s character portrayed as not matching up to the perfect archetype child that people believe children’s books should portray. We will try to work through some of the ambiguous factors that surround children’s literature.

Peter Hunt touches on many points in his article about the distinctions between adult versus children’s literature in “The Fundamentals of Children’s Literature Criticism: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.” Many people think children’s literature needs to make children safe, not exposing them to the realities of the world in any way. Those that have this viewpoint believe children are as Hunt says, “innocent, – and woe betide either the dirty-minded critic or the morally suspect author who would defile this ludic space” (41). Many individuals feel that a children’s book should connect with their idea of a perfect child, ideally what they think children should be, or a child archetype. Hunt also comments, “Manifestly, “children’s books” they will be suitable for children who are what the adults wish the children ideally be: innocent (and possibly ignorant), charming, playful, harmless, unfrightening, sexless, nonviolent, and religiously perfect” (43). Many people have this view that Hunt talks about in this line that children need to keep their innocence and not be exposed to anything that is out of that realm that they believe is innocence. I do agree that children should be somewhat sheltered, but this all seems a bit ambiguous. There is no set or right or wrong answer per say, but alas, when this innocence is lost or interrupted, readers may have an issue with this. In the case of Harriet the Spy, many readers who dislike Harriet say she is narcissistic, in her own world, mean, and heartless. I think people who feel innocence is important use these adjectives to describe Harriet’s loss of innocence or the manipulation of innocence and have a strong feeling against it. Harriet does go through a series of losses, the loss of her notebook, the loss of her friends, and the loss of Ole Golly. An example of Harriet’s self-centeredness can be seen in the text when Harriet and Sport are playing Town. She puts Sport’s father in the town, the town bar to be exact, when she knows Sport has to take his father’s paycheck away to be sure he does not squander all their money. Harriet never stops to examine whether or not this would upset Sport, she doesn’t even think twice about it. Judith John further explains innocence through a quote, “The loss of innocence has proven to be both historically and cross-culturally the single most important step in the maturation process, and Harriet is no exception” (John 171). I agree with this quote, however with my research I find this quote to be manipulated through readers. Many readers see Harriet as not maturing or growing through the story, but having this hint of narcissism as well, showing that loss of innocence and maturation are not mutually exclusive. Uncovering the ideas of innocence help to show the differences of the archetype child versus the non-archetype child or what could be called, the real child. Although I cannot disagree with the ideas that Harriet does portray narcissistic tendencies and is very self-centered in her world, I do not think she should be given so much flack by readers. She is still a child, and has a lot more learning and growing to do.

Another element that is important to talk about is the stereotype that children’s literature should teach a lesson. Usually when adults or other readers do not see a lesson in a children’s book it is not seen as a children’s book, or appropriate for children, or in general, disliked, because children are young and they’re minds still have a lot of growing and molding to be done. There is a perception that a lesson should be taken away from reading any type of children’s literature. The stereotypes that children’s literature should be a certain way and portray children as innocent, ignorant, teach a lesson, and ideally be the perfect child to be a model for it’s children readers is constricting. It limits people’s views and doesn’t allow for further exploration into the text at times. I somewhat agree with the point that a lesson should be taken away or there should be some sort of message that resonates with the reader after finishing the book. However, I do not believe that all children’s literature should be read to find a lesson in it. I do understand the arguments that children’s literature should teach a lesson as a way to mold and make an example for children through words. Although, I think books can be read for fun and if something is learned from it than that is a plus. I also think children should be given more credit than they are when it comes to reading and understanding the world around them.

In reader reviews found on a vast amount of opinions on Harriet the Spy are found. This is where I found a large amount of conflicting views on the book and opinions of the main character Harriet. One of the first good read reviews I found commented on how put off by the book this person was, they had set their expectations that they were reading a beloved and light-hearted childhood book about a girl who learns some life lessons after she is caught spying on some friends and neighbors. This reader also comments on the fact that Harriet doesn’t grow during the story and how upsetting that is (Lm para1&3). These comments relate to my earlier statements about how people view children’s literature and how they need to abide by their archetype child to be liked and viewed as a children’s book. This reader points out that Harriet didn’t learn a life lesson, which is a sole fact of the readers interpretation of children’s literature, however a life lesson does not need to accompany a character or a book to be defined as a children’s book. Another reader reviewer interviewed his children on the book; the children’s ages were six, eight, and he also includes his own opinions. I found it interesting that he asked both children what they thought the moral was, going back to the stereotype that children’s literature must have a moral to their story, that something needs to be learned. However, both children concluded the moral was that you should not write mean things about other people in a notebook. The father comments that he thought the book would be over the children’s heads, but that they caught on pretty quickly. This statement goes against Hunt’s comments and the stereotype that children are viewed as innocent and they don’t know very much. The father also tries to pick a moral out from the story, that we can be authentic and still get along with people, though it sometimes requires little white lies. He also adds that he likes that Harriet is confident and tries to read books with strong confident characters to his children (Dave para3). Another reader review I found quite interesting backs up my point that readers who rave about Harriet relate themselves to her. “Sometimes its okay to feel mean…. Sometimes it’s okay to just wake up feeling mean and its okay to hate the stupid birds singing outside the window. Sometimes it’s okay to hate our friends and its okay to hate our lives. Just like sometimes its okay to have to be an onion when we would rather not have to be an onion, and its okay to have to grow up and be able to handle things on our own….. This book is full of reminders for me. But mostly it just reminds me of who I am” (El para12). This reader felt something from Harriet’s character, she related to her, she has learned from Harriet and applies attitudes to her life today. In a way I think Harriet appeals to people who never felt as if they had a place to fit in, people who were bullied, or had problems making friends, or keeping friends. I think this shows how Harriet has made a difference to people who never felt as if they were on the inside. Another quote from this reviewer which I valued for showing another way of looking at Harriet’s story was, “… Her story is timeless- she’s just a kid who wants to figure herself out and sometimes she has to be an onion, we all have days like that” (El para9). In the eyes of this reader’s view of children’s literature, I am assuming should be one in which children can relate to and find themselves within. Another addition to this argument of enjoying the book because of the reader relating to it and pertaining to it and valuing Harriet the Spy is a professional article written by Kathleen Horning. Horning takes and makes Harriet the Spy into her own, and relates Harriet the Spy to the gay community and the usage of this book by Horning as an escape from her outside world. She raves about Harriet saying, “she may have saved your life, or at least made it a bit more comfortable” (49). Horning’s article comments on how in tune with childhood Harriet’s character was. She adds that Fitzhugh pulled realistic childhood characteristics out like defying her parents and friends, Harriet’s cross-dressing, and the integration of what children think in their minds. Horning was struck by how revolutionary Harriet’s character was. This comment about Harriet being a revolutionary character adds to the notion that Harriet is portrayed as a realistic child and a new type of feminine role in children’s literature.

One theme that is seen in the reception of Harriet the Spy is her portrayal of a young female in contemporary society. Before Harriet there were not many books that portrayed a young girl as confident or independent and wanting to fulfill a dream. A quote by Clark in Judith McMullen’s critical article states that “seemly feminine behavior for nineteenth century females required self-control, with aspirations towards “domesticity and moral goodness” and away from the self expression of art and fiction” (McMullen 200). McMullen comments that earlier works wanted to tame wild girls through “1) friends and family, 2) religion, 3) falling in love” (200). Therefore with reading Harriet the Spy we see that Harriet was unable to be tamed and put up a fight toward these ideas and from these ideas you can draw a conclusion that people may have viewed Harriet as chaotic character because they were not used to seeing an independent eleven-year-old shown in a children’s book. McMullen comments that with Harriet the Spy, Fitzhugh shows how far women have come in the world and I agree with this statement. An example of this is noted in Harriet the Spy when Harriet is told by her mother she will need dancing lessons to become a proper lady and she screams and says “I’ll be damned if I’ll take dancing lessons (83)” (201). Harriet presses against the wall of the archetype perfect child, she is not perfect, she is flawed in some ways, but I think these are the reasons by which people who favor Harriet draw these conclusions from. These reasons make her relatable to children in the contemporary society that may have rich families or do not get as much attention as they need, or feel out of place at school or at home and must search for other outlets, like writing, to feel safe and appreciated. Harriet blurs the lines between what people think children should be and what children are or just another way of viewing them.

I enjoyed reading Harriet the Spy because of the sole fact that she is different, that this story is different. I am not the largest fan of how mean she is, but I empathize with her when her notebook is found and her privacy is breached. I like how Harriet kind of does her own thing, and doesn’t really care. I think this is kind of an ancient idea in our world today, we take a lot of interest in what other’s say about us that we fear doing things that would take us out of the norm or make others think differently of us. I appreciate all of the different opinions of the book and think it is really interesting to see how different people take the same material and end up with different opinions based on their present lives, past lives, and other factors.


Work Cited

Dave. Rev. of Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. 07 July 2013.Web. 27 May 2014.

El. Rev. of Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. 30 March 2013. Web. 27 May 2014.

Fitzhugh, Louise. Harriet the Spy. New York: Yearling, 1964. Print.

Horning, Kathleen T. “On Spies and Purple Socks and Such.” The Horn Book Magazine (2005): 49-52.

Hunt, Peter. “Chapter 1 The Fundamentals of Children’s Literature Criticism: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass. “Adult’s and Children’s Literature.” 35-51. Print.

John, Judith G. “The Legacy of Peter Pan and Wendy: Images of Lost Innocence and Social Consequences in Harriet the Spy.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly (1991): 168-73.

Lm. Rev. of Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. 10 July 2010. Web. 27 May 2014.

McMullen, Judith Q. “The Spy and the Poet: Young Girls as Writers in Harriet the Spy and Anastasia Krupnik.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly (1991): 200-04. Web.


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