The Reception of Harriet the Spy

Shelby Neidigh

Upon researching two scholarly articles, four professional reviews, and ten Amazon account-holders’ comments on the novel Harriet the Spy, the general reception of the novel was resoundingly positive.  There was a minority of negatives that I was able to touch on; however, through all three types of critical analysis of the novel, the majority had gained only positives from their experience reading Harriet’s story.  After describing and reflecting on each of the reviews I read, I will be comparing and relating the ideas that society has set in place and voiced about children, girls, and writers to Louis Fitzhugh’s novel Harriet the Spy.

To begin, let me focus on the scholarly articles.  The first one I reviewed was written by Elizabeth Law, an editor for children’s literature.  The title of her article was “Yes, but I’m Eleven” which is a direct quote Harriet makes in Harriet the Spy.  Upon exploring the article further, I discovered that Law’s article does not only reflect on her views of Harriet the Spy, but rather children’s literature in general.  She uses Harriet the Spy as a prime example of a story, written by an adult for children, that doesn’t condescend children and undermine their intelligence with language that is considered to be “cutened up” which typically translates to “dumbed down.”  She comments that Louise Fitzhugh “lampooned the image of the caring, understanding adult who can really ‘talk to children’ (15)” where as adults in other children’s literature novels openly talk down to children with no negative connotations.

The second scholarly article I utilized in my critical reception of Harriet the Spy was Lissa Paul’s “The Feminist Writer as Heroine in Harriet the Spy.”  Her article focused on the fact that Harriet’s character is a female child who has a passion for writing.  She then took this idea and compared it to various works of women’s literature where the lead female character is a woman that wishes to become a writer, predominantly Anna Wulf in Doris Lessing’s 1962 novel The Golden Notebook.  Paul notes that in women’s literature, the woman must often choose between becoming a successful writer and fitting in in society.  She notes the similarity that both Harriet and Anna decide to keep their writing private and to themselves.  This changes once Harriet’s notebook is confiscated and read by all of her peers.  If this were to have happened to Anna, in the theme of Women’s literature, she would have become an outcast of society.  Although Harriet’s notebook is not positively received, her peers and the adult figures in her life are able to get over the mean comments and reviews the discovered in the notebook and accept Harriet back into society without so much as any tarnish on her reputation.  This, Paul claims, is the difference between children’s and woman’s literature.  She states that “children win; women don’t.”  This is reinforced with examples of several more novels in which women do not succeed in both writing and being accepted in society.

Next I reviewed four professional reviews from journals and blogs that were published online.  These four reviews were done by Stephany Aluenback on Common Sense Media, Ana Grilo on the blog site titled The Book Smugglers, Jennifer Kendall from About .com , and Cathryn Mercier from the Horn Book Magazine.  All of these reviews made similar points; including commenting on the behavior and negative characteristics of Harriet as a young female character.  Three out of the four reviews felt as though these characteristics, although negative, made Harriet relatable to the readers and therefore well-received.  Catheryn Mercier was the only one who did not find Harriet to be well received and actually commented on how she was unable to relate to such an unappreciative, spoiled child.  All the reviews did comment that there were many things children’s and adults alike could learn from reading or re-reading this novel.

The final type of review I looked at was in the form of comments that readers made on the site Amazon .com.  I selected three 5 star reviews, two 4, 3, and 2 star reviews, and one 1 star review which I felt accurately represented the distribution of overall star reviews on the website.  I didn’t feel as though I was able to gain much about the novel from these reviews.  I felt as though the comments were shallow and lacking any constructive criticism and the higher star reviews were mostly just summaries of the novel in the reader’s own words.  An interesting fact that I drew from these comments was that there were several adult readers that had admitted to re-reading the story as an adult after reading it as a child and one thoroughly enjoyed reading it again and the other was completely unable to relate to the novel any longer.

One three star review by the amazon reader by the name of erniebear was very contradictory in his review, beginning by saying that he was not “completely thrilled” by the book but then going against this thought by saying it was probably due to the fact that he had read it as an adult rather than a child.  He contradicts himself again by saying that “Harriet is a great young female character, especially considering the era she was first written in” and then goes on to describe her in a variety of positive ways, only to later state that she is lacking in compassion and essentially teaches the lesson of “tell people what they want to hear and to do what you will, just don’t get caught” and warns that “maybe a little supervision is needed to add a little kindness to an otherwise worthy story.”

This review by erniebear stirred up ideas about how society believes children, essentially young girls, should behave and how children’s literature should be written or received.  If a story, such as Harriet the Spy requires an adult’s supervision or guidance while reading, then is it really a story for children?  Should the lesson in children’s literature be black and white, right and wrong, in order to be easily understood by children?  Does children’s literature necessarily need a lesson in the first place or are children able to read for their own enjoyment?  These questions were all spiked by one three-star review on a free website where anyone can log on and share their thoughts.

To begin, let’s look at Encyclopedia Britannica’s definition of children’s literature: “The body of written works and accompanying illustrations produced in order to entertain or instruct young people.”  By this very basic definition, children’s literature is considered to be something that entertains OR instructs young people.  I would like to take it upon myself and state that children’s literature is capable of teaching a lesson while entertaining its readers; however, I agree that it is not always required to do both.  In the case of the novel Harriet the Spy, I believe that the idea that Fitzhugh had for the novel was not to teach a lesson, especially not to teach the negative lesson of “do what you will, just don’t get caught,” but rather to write a story that is relatable and open the reader’s eyes to the idea that not everyone fits into stereotypes that are set in place by society and that is okay.  It may come across at the end of the novel that Harriet has not learned her lesson that that she was able to get away with being a menacing spoiled brat, but it also reflects that it is okay to have views and opinions that go against the grain.

Society would like to believe the idea that children are innocent, unaware, naive, and impressionable.  I feel as though that is due to the fact that society does not wish to face the reality that children know a lot more than they are given credit for.  Harriet demonstrates this in her desire to spy on her neighbors and record what she sees.  She wishes to be aware of her environment; she is curious and full of her own thoughts and opinions which she records in her journal and keeps to herself.  Today, in 2014, young people share their opinions and thoughts on numerous, very public social media outlets every single day.  This is viewed as the “norm” now and yet when people read a novel for children written in 1964 today, they feel as if that child is lacking in compassion.

This idea of Harriet’s character lacking compassion and therefore “teaching the lesson” of “do what you want just don’t get caught” brings us to the question of, if children’s literature requires adult supervision, then is it really for children?  I feel as though children’s literature should be a place to which children can escape their everyday lives, and perhaps even their parents, and go on an adventure while still remaining safe in the confines of where they are reading.  I feel as though Harriet demonstrates this escape by writing in her journal rather than reading stories.  This is shown in the text when Harriet visits Dr. Wagner:

“Suppose,” he said slowly “I gave you a notebook.  Then we’ll each have one and we’ll be fairly matched.” Harriet stared at him hard.  Was he kidding her? Was he trying to see what she’d do?  Her fingers itched at the thought of a notebook, of a pen flying over the pages, of her thoughts, finally free to move, flowing out.  Oh, who cared what he was trying to do.

“Okay, do you have another one?”  She tried to appear casual.

Yes, as a matter of fact, I do.”  He went to his desk and took out a very pretty little notebook with a bright blue cover.  Harriet tried to look unconcerned by looking at the spinet.  He also took out a nice little ballpoint pen.  He handed both to Harriet.  She felt better the moment she had them in her hand (pg 257).

Harriet, while remaining under the observation of Dr. Wagner, is able to escape her thoughts by writing them down on paper.  Although Harriet didn’t write the nicest things about people in her journal, Dr. Wagner understood that she needed that escape and provided her with the new notebook.  When her mother took it away from her, she retreated back into her loneliness and all of her attempts to reach out to who she used to consider her friends failed.  I feel as though Dr. Wagner’s observations of Harriet should be the way we, as a society, view children.

Children understand a lot more than people tend to give them credit for and even when we try and remove the things that we feel may negatively influence them they still have and experience their thoughts and feelings.  I believe that novel Harriet the Spy is a wonderful story that reflects an understanding that children should not be spoken down to and that children’s literature does not necessarily need to be safe.  Characters in children’s literature should be allowed to be up to no good, because in reality there are children that may be “up to no good.”  In as harmless of a way as Harriet behaves, keeping what is supposed to be a confidential private journal of her thoughts in order to escape her own mind, it should not be discouraged of shamed for children to have these thought.  Everyone has negative thoughts and feelings; it is part of being human.  If children feel as though these thoughts are not an acceptable to thing to have (I am in no way saying that negative thoughts should be acted on), that leaves them open to feel as if they are an outcast of society, as Harriet felt once she lost her friends.

Harriet is accepted again by her friends and coeds at school when she channels her thoughts and talents into what could be considered a more positive light.  Although gossip columns are not always the most prestigious types of writings, they are entertaining and amusing and generally accepted by society as just that.  Although, at Harriet’s age, it may seem advanced to indulge in a gossip column, for the sake of the story it could be said that it teaches the reader NOT that they can do anything and  get away with it, but rather , there is an appropriate time and place for things and having your own thoughts, even if they are negative, is normal and okay.

Overall, I feel as though Harriet the Spy is an empowering novel for children who may be feeling lonely or outcast, similar to how Harriet felt after losing her notebook.  Although it stretches the norms as to what society may feel is appropriate for children’s literature, I feel as though it fits the Encyclopedia Britannica’s definition of entertaining a young audience.  I believe it does this, not by fitting the norms and ideals of how young girls and children should act, but rather by being relatable to the children who live their lives every day outside what is considered society’s norms.  The lesson is in no way black and white, or clearly spelled out what is considered right and wrong, but I believe that is what makes it the classic it is today.

 

Bibliography

Aulenback, Stephany. “Harriet the Spy – Book Review.” Harriet the Spy Book Review. Common Sense Media, n.d. Web. 21 May 2014. <https://www.commonsensemedia.org/book-reviews/harriet-the-spy&gt;.

Erniebear. “Almost there…” Rev. of Harriet the spy, by Louis Fitzhugh. Amazon.com. 30 Oct 2000. Web. 15 June 2014.

Fadiman, Clifton. “Children’s Literature.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 12 Jan. 2014. Web. 15 June 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/111289/childrens-literature&gt;.

Grilo, Ana. “Old School Wednesdays: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.” The Book Smugglers. N.p., 06 Nov. 2013. Web. 21 May 2014. <http://thebooksmugglers.com/2013/11/old-school-wednesdays-harriet-the-spy-by-louise-fitzhugh.html&gt;.

Kendall, Jennifer. “Harriet the Spy – Controversial but Enduring.” About.com Children’s Books. About.com, n.d. Web. 25 May 2014. <http://childrensbooks.about.com/od/productreviews/fr/Harriet-The-Spy-By-Louise-Fitzhugh.htm&gt;.

Law, Elizabeth. “”Yes, but I’m Eleven”: An Editor’s Perspective on Condescension in Children’s Literature.” The Lion and the Unicorn 17.1 (1993): 15-21. Project Muse. Web. 21 May 2014.

Mercier, Cathryn M. “Becoming a Book Detective.” Horn Book Magazine May-June 2014: 40-41. The Horn Book. 18 Apr. 2014. Web. 21 May 2014. <http://www.hbook.com/2014/04/opinion/becoming-book-detective/&gt;.

Paul, Lissa. “The Feminist Writer as Heroine in Harriet the Spy.” The Lion and the Unicorn 13.1 (1989): 67-73. Project Muse. Web. 21 May 2014.

 

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