Louise Fitzhugh’s literary realism inspired a new generation of spy kids.
Fifty years after Harriet the Spy was published in 1964, we take for granted the breadth of emotionally grounded, realistic fiction now available to young readers. But Louise Fitzhugh’s novel was a game changer, remarkable — even controversial — for its frank portrayal of childhood. There is nothing sentimental or idealized about 11-year-old Harriet. Her parents and teachers find her loud (we’re talking ALL CAPS) and disrespectful. Even Harriet’s friends can find her snide and judgmental. As readers of her private journals, we know Harriet to be incredibly sensitive and perceptive. She is a complex character, made richer by her imperfections.
Harriet M. Welsch (the middle initial is her own invention) aspires to be a professional writer and spy, under the tutelage of her beloved nanny, Ole Golly. Like any disciplined writer, Harriet adheres to a strict routine. Finishing her after-school snack of cake and milk, she heads out on her spy route on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. This is no game. In Harriet’s words: “I do not go out to PLAY, I go out to WORK!” Dressed in old jeans and a sweatshirt, she is a far cry from the conventionally feminine Nancy Drew. The self-proclaimed spy is an outsider, observing and trying to make sense of the world through the written word.
Harriet comes of age both as a writer and an individual. Her notebook is initially filled with the sort of unsparing caricatures and snap judgments that will later get her into trouble with peers. But Harriet is curious to delve deeper into her subjects, thinking, “I wonder what it would be like to be a table or a chair or a bathtub or another person.” By the end of the novel, she has a newfound empathy. Like any mature writer, she grapples with the ethics of representation, of watching those around her and attempting to capture them on paper.
A recent article in Publishers Weekly addresses the return to realistic, contemporary fiction for teens, with John Green and Gayle Forman leading the way. So what (in addition to brilliant marketing and blockbuster film adaptations) accounts for the current trend? Beverly Horowitz, a publisher at Random House’s children’s division, suggests that a story “‘that ignites honest emotions and gets at the complexities of human relationships is the kind of read that satisfies. The taste for that never really went away; it just became less fashionable during our decade of dystopia. So now we’re back.’” Children’s publishers are again pushing for the sort of literary realism that Fitzhugh championed through Harriet the Spy.
To celebrate Fitzhugh’s birthday on October 5, as well as the 50th anniversary of Harriet the Spy, we’re breaking out the binoculars and surveying the spy kids of today’s children’s literature. Borrowing a page from Harriet’s notebook, all of the books below capture in some way the outsider experience and perspective of young people, and reflect the writing process itself. Though they inhabit familiar worlds, the characters in these novels have no shortage of imagination. As they piece together narratives from their observations, they make their first strides toward self-authorship.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone has a keen analytical mind, yet he struggles to relate to others, landing somewhere along the autism spectrum. When a neighbor’s dog dies suspiciously, his investigation stirs up family secrets and brings him beyond the boundaries of his Wiltshire neighborhood. In the spirit of Fitzhugh’s Harriet, Christopher maintains meticulous notes that he plans to turn into a book about the case. Christopher’s narration, taking the shape of his completed book, reveals his hyper-awareness and unique way of processing. It challenges readers to imagine the magnified isolation and anxiety of the teen. Though his discoveries are painful, Christopher is ultimately empowered by sleuthing, writing, “I solved the mystery … and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.”
Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff
The preteen heroine in Rosoff’s novel is another aspiring detective hailing from England. Named after her grandfather’s terrier, Mila has an almost canine instinct for people and situations. Her dad, a linguist, nicknames her “Perguntador,” Portuguese for “questioner.” She channels her energies in inventing spy missions and secret codes with her best friend. The disappearance of her dad’s friend provides the first true test of Mila’s skills. As the father and daughter travel through upstate New York for their investigation, it becomes clear that this is no open-and-shut case. In spite of her emotional intelligence and forensic attention to detail, Mila is limited by inexperience. Adults — even the ones she trusts most — lie and withhold key information in an effort to protect her. Mila’s first-person, present-tense narration renders her disillusionment all the more immediate. It also brings to mind the realism of Harriet’s journal.
All the Wrong Questions by Lemony Snicket
Snicket’s latest series is a pseudo-autobiography and prequel to A Series of Unfortunate Events. As an official spy-in-training, young Snicket represents the fulfillment of Harriet M. Welsch’s fantasy. Far from home investigating crimes in the fading town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, the boy overcomes his isolation by teaming up with “associates” his own age. Moxie Mallahan is an intrepid journalist, investigator and surely a descendant of Harriet. Together, Snicket and Mallahan confront notorious villains and oblivious chaperones in the name of justice, kindness and literacy.In addition to physical violence, Snicket witnesses attacks on intellectual freedom: The series’ latest installment finds schools and libraries under the threat of arson. Snicket combats the menace not only through espionage but by championing books and their creators. Of course, he highly recommends Harriet the Spy.
Since publication, Harriet the Spy and her creator have periodically come under fire from critics and parents who object to the lying and tantrum-throwing heroine. Suddenly Harriet isn’t the only one whose work is contested over a few unflattering (if accurate) portraits. Rereading the novel in the midst of Banned Book Week, I saw the “Spy Catcher Club” that forms against Harriet in a more troubling light. Harriet’s classmates go on the offensive, at one point deliberately pouring ink on her signed paper:
…a stain of spreading, running blue ink went on the Harriet M. Welsch, making it disappear, and continued toward Harriet, as she watched in horror, spilling down all over her dress, down the front even onto her legs and into her shoes and socks.
Suddenly the juvenile pranks take a serious turn. In this moment, Harriet’s name — her identity as author and person — is virtually blotted out. The ink spills over onto Harriet herself, reminding us that censorship is an act of violence against the author behind the words.
Harriet the Spy remains as vital as ever, encouraging readers young and old to imagine a perspective outside their own. Fitzhugh never condescended to children, instead acknowledging their potentially subversive power as outsiders. She believed that “all kids are spies” trying to make sense of a world run by grownups. If the interactions between kids and adults are fraught with misunderstanding and misreading, Harriet and her descendants know the comfort that writing affords:
[Harriet] grabbed up the pen and felt the mercy of her thoughts coming quickly, zooming through her head out the pen onto the paper. What a relief, she thought to herself; for a moment I thought I had dried up. She wrote a lot about what she felt, relishing the joy of her fingers gliding across the page, the sheer relief of communication.
Emma Kantor is a writer, improviser and literacy champion at Children’s Book Council. Her work has appeared in The Book Report Network, The Madison Journal of Literary Criticism and Journal of Italian Translation. She’s unfashionably late to the Twitter party: @theneutralface.
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