Harriet the Spy; By Louise Fitzhugh ( A Tween Book?)

1964 (renewed in 1992)
16 chapters/ three books in one/ 300pgs
Ages 10 and up

According to Dictionary .com the term “tween” gets its origin from the Middle English (A.D. 1250-1300) word “twene”, “atwene” or “betwene”  a contraction for the word between but today, in more resent years, it has become associated with the 8-14 year olds, those that are in-between childhood and the teenage years. There are many good books that  were written before publishers targeted the tween label one of which is Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.

Harriet’s  life ambition is to become a writer, in the meantime she practices by being a spy.  She has a route she follows after school where she bounces from house to house with her notebook and writes down  every thought that enters her head.  Harriet brings her notebook everywhere!! One day she loses her notebook just for a few moments and it is picked up by her friends and read aloud, the unfiltered truth out there for the public to hear. Naturally this doesn’t go over well. The rest of the story is Harriet’s struggle to overcome the chaos caused by the public début of her notebook.

The thing that most people remember about this book is that there was a girl obsessed with writing and spying  and all the trouble that can cause, but it is so much more .  It is a book about a girl growing up and learning some not so fun lessons.

This book has all the common themes of a tween book; friendship, family,  and growing independence (Harlan, Maryann SJSU ).  Harriet has to deal with the backlash of the notebook from her friends. She has relatively absent parents who only seem to get involved after the nanny Ole Golly leaves.  Ole leaving, drops the floor from under Harriet’s feet and forces her to take charge of her life.  Overall this book is well worth the time and effort. You will be amazed with the unique and realistic characters Louise Fitzhugh has created.


7 thoughts on “Harriet the Spy; By Louise Fitzhugh ( A Tween Book?)

  1. I don’t recall ever reading this book so I do look forward to actually reading it at some later point. I remember when the movie came out that my mother and aunt (both 55+) were very excited. They described Harriet as the lovable know-it-all. In many ways the strong protagonist role of a young female was not as common in “real-life” when the book was published and most likely served as a good role-model for tween girls at that time. It does sound like an enjoyable read even for my “old” self, but I am curious if you think the context is still appropriate or if tween can easily relate to Harriet almost 50 years after it was published? I think learning about the importance of even the cover art for tween books was very interesting and I completely agree that it is very influential regardless of age. I think that’s why I would like to learn more about book display designs. When I see a wonderful display I am usually persuaded to choose a book from that display at the local bookstore or the public library. Harriet on the cover looks very confident, sort of self absorbed, but also like she’s strutting along with no care in the world. What’s your opinion on continually redesigning cover art so they remain modern so classics aren’t overlooked by today’s youth?

    • I feel that for the most part this story still will resonate with kids today. I don’t really live in a world were my parents are off at grand dinner parties every night, I was not raised by a nanny, and I didn’t have a cook I am sure there are some kids out there that might, but I feel like this is an area that might lose some of its readers. The graphics on the cover were drawn by the author and there are many through out the book, these I feel work very well with todays book designs (amount, type of drawing, and placement). Just by looking at the book you can’t really tell that it was written in the 60’s. The only thing that really dates this piece is the lack of technology or the types mentioned; a typewriter instead of a computer, no cell phones, no internet which could bring a whole new level to Harriet’s spying. But to be quite honest I didn’t miss this element and I don’t think tween readers will either.

      • I agree; Harriet the Spy is still a relevant tween title, even nearly fifty years after its original publication. There are many elements that tweens can relate to: friendship, family relationships, and growing independence, as you mention. Also, dealing with teachers and getting in trouble at school, finding one’s niche (for Harriet, journalism), and–going along with growing independence–finding a balance between being oneself and not ostracizing everyone around you.

        At the same time, though, there are a few elements that today’s readers (even adults) most likely would not pick up on that caused huge controversy when the book came out. (I did a project on this book for History of Youth Literature over the summer, so I’ve got a little bit of the inside scoop.) Aside from the standard issue of growing independence was the issue of female independence. Throughout the book, Harriet wears boys’ clothes, which was not at all common or widely accepted at the time–in fact, critics called her a cross-dresser. Harriet also contemplates whether she will even want to get married when she grows up, another concept that went against the social attitudes of the time. Finally, Harriet the Spy came out at a time when children in books always followed the rules and did as they were told. Nowadays, this isn’t the case; characters more often than not get into all sorts of trouble. In the 1960s, however, Harriet’s behavior was shocking, and critics fought to keep it out of children’s hands because they saw her as a bad role model.

        So I guess in response to the question of whether Harriet still resonates with kids today I would say that yes, it does, though in quite a different way than it did originally. However, I think that is the nature of enduring literature. It adapts itself to the time in which it is read; readers bring their own experiences to it, giving it new life and perpetuating its appeal.

  2. I remember this book being very popular back in the day when I was in grade/middle school and how all of my friends were into reading what was popular. I definitely agree that this particular book seems to fit the tween label on certain aspects and levels. Certain markets such as Pleasant Company, feel that older girls want to find out who they are (Maughan, 2002) and take charge of their lives.This title can be a very important tool for tweens who are learning new lessons about life. Another aspect that seems to shine in this book is the role of the parents and/or nanny and how they seem to give positive guidance. Even though the presence of the parents is absent during the time the nanny is available, there is still someone giving Harriet guidance and teaching important positive values, which are part of the 40 developmental assets in middle childhood created by the Search Institute. These assets include teaching this particular age group about helping others, respecting one another, telling the truth, and accepting personal responsibility (Search Institute).

    • There were diffidently a lot of elements of the 40 development assets in middle childhood in Harriet the Spy. Like you said when Ole was not in the picture the parents did step in and became a stronger family support for Harriet which is number 1 on the list. Ole would count as number 3, other adult relationships and a number 14, adult role models. One of the assets that was missing , and to a degree, rightfully so (she did hurt a lot of people with her words) was number 5 caring school climate (in regards to her peers). Her peers reaction seemed a bit extreme but it was most likely the first time they ever had to deal with a situation like that, so I can’t really blame them for not knowing what to do right away.

  3. Your post was thought provoking as it is true that this age group 8-14 is smartly targeted by publishers. This age group is complex as they are going through a variety of rapid developmental changes. These changes are combinations of social, physical and emotional that makes them want to be treated like teens and no longer like children. The character Harriet the Spy is multifaceted she exposes the same characteristics of todays tween. She is active, imaginative, noisy, and truthfully honest that can sometimes come out as cruel. You stated that a lot of readers remember this book as a girl who is obsessed with writing and it is what consumes her time but like you stated it is so much more. It is about a time in everyone’s life where you don’t feel like you belong and you are learning that adults lie. That the life that you once knew to be true is no longer so you must grow, adapt and learn to find a new you with all of these changes happening around you and to you. All the themes found in this wonderful book from friendship, family and growing up will continue to attract new tween reader.
    This book reminded me of other titles like Matilda by Roald Dahl and Franny K. Stein and Dear Dumb Diary by Jim Benton or Diary of a Wimpy by Jeff Kinney that portray growing children trying to adjust to a new stage in their life.

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