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1. Harriet at 50

harriet banner 76x550 Harriet at 50

She doesn’t look a day over eleven, but this year Harriet the Spy, first published in 1964, is turning 50. To celebrate, The Horn Book Magazine‘s May/June issue features thoughts, musings, riffs, and remembrances about the girl spy. Click on the tag Harriet at 50 to see what Jack Gantos, K. T. Horning, Megan McDonald, and more are saying about Harriet.

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2. I Spy: Harriet and I

harriet at 50 banner I Spy: Harriet and I

When I was a boy, I knew I was sneaky, but I didn’t think of myself as a “lowlife sneak” until my mother called me one with such disgust in her voice I actually did feel ashamed.

I was babysitting at the next-door neighbor’s house when my mother looked out her own bedroom window and spotted me, twenty feet away, in Mrs. Hanley’s bedroom. I was sitting on the edge of her bed and reading her Last Will and Testament, which I had found in a bottom dresser drawer. It was not interesting. But the thrill of being sneaky was addictive. I had done a lot of babysitting in the neighborhood. I read Mrs. Hogan’s diary and might have known she was leaving Mr. Hogan before he did. I knew where the smutty magazines were kept—and all their compatible products. I didn’t do anything with what I found — I just liked knowing I had discovered something that was supposed to be a secret.

I was carefully returning Mrs. Hanley’s will back into the dresser drawer when the doorbell rang. I ran to answer the door, and my mother was on the other side. Her first biting sentence was well chosen. “You are nothing but a lowlife sneak!” she hissed.

She had me there. But I was only a sneak of casual opportunity. Besides my babysitting sneakiness, I listened in on other people’s phone conversations, read mail that wasn’t mine, used binoculars to watch people from safe distances, and basically amused myself by ferreting out secrets that were none of my business. But I wasn’t an organized, literary sneak — that is, until I read Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.

I came to Harriet the Spy a little late in my reading life. Harriet was in sixth grade and I was in seventh when I first read it, and I wouldn’t have discovered the book at all except that my older sister, Betsy, had it. She didn’t care for the book, but she did say, “You’ll like it. You are a sneak, too.” My mother always confided in my sister, which only allowed my sister to loathe me more than what came naturally to her.

So I read the book. It was an odd read. Harriet creeped me out because I was as emotionally awkward as she was, and it repulsed me to see myself defined through the mirror of that text. Still, the book connected me to one particular activity: Harriet kept a notebook and wrote down secret observations she made while out walking on her “spy route.”

I had a journal (the boy name for a diary), and the idea of an organized “spy route” got under my skin. For the first time I began to draw maps of my neighborhood, and maps of my school, and maps of the inside of people’s homes I would visit or babysit for — and maps of my own home, too. I would annotate the maps and then write short bits about certain characters, objects, or events. I was a stamp collector and coin collector, and so discovering secrets about people and putting them into a book was right up my alley.

See, for example, the map of my home [printed in the May/June 2014 Horn Book Magazine].

Look inside the house and you will see “My Room” (with a picture of my journal). Across the hall was my sister’s room. I once read her diary and she caught me and hurt me badly, but for some reason I didn’t draw that moment. We had one bathroom and I was not allowed to lock the door because my mother caught me taking fake, waterless baths. The “Cool Air Chair” in the kitchen is pure genius — we had no air conditioning in South Florida, and the moment my parents would leave the house I would open the refrigerator, pull up a dining-room chair, get a book, and sit on the chair and stick my feet in the refrigerator and prop them up on a shelf. Now that was great reading! (My mother caught on to me one day because I had gotten too comfortable and kicked my sneakers off in the refrigerator and forgotten to take them out.) “Jack’s Stain” is where I threw up on the wall — it was spaghetti, and we never could get the faint, greasy orange stain off the wall. “Zippy the Roach” was one of my roach pals. I wrote his name on his back with nail polish and Scotch-taped him to a Hot Wheels car, and then made a leash out of thread and pulled him down the sidewalk. Once, when my sister was sleeping with her mouth open on the couch, I dropped him down her throat. She threatened to tell my mom unless I took off all my clothes and ran naked around the house. I opted for the naked punishment. But while I was running, she locked all the doors and windows, and I had to hide in the front bushes all day until my dad came home. “Wart Trouble” is when I ripped a wart off my foot with pliers and lost a lot of blood and it got infected and my foot swelled up to the size of a canned ham and then I broke out in boils. My mother told our family doctor that I was the “stupidest kid in the world.” I broke my little brother Pete’s arm in the backyard. Our cat fell out of a tree and did not land on its feet. An alligator ate our dog. I could go on and on…and if I had more room I’d write about the Pagoda family next door. My mother called them the “low supervision” family, and they taught me a lot of dangerous stunts.

Harriet the Spy started all this business, which resulted in maps and journals full of stories, which eventually turned into five volumes of Jack Henry stories. I’m forever grateful to Louise Fitzhugh for the inspiration. I love Harriet, and now when I read the book I get very upset when anyone is mean to her.

From the May/June 2014 Horn Book Magazine. Part of a special section commemorating the 50th anniversary of Harriet the Spy.

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3. Writer, Wrestler, Stutterer, Spy

harriet at 50 banner Writer, Wrestler, Stutterer, Spy

This is the story of how I came to read and know and love Harriet the Spy. It is also a harrowing account of my brush with danger, in which my ten-year-old self stared fear in the face.

When I was nine or so, I started having trouble with words. I grew up with four older sisters. My bridge-builder dad got home every night after dark, but Mom would hold dinner and we’d all eat together at our big round kitchen table with a lazy Susan in the middle. Dinnertime was our time to talk and tell about our day. But as the youngest kid, I could never seem to get a word in edgewise.

I began to stutter.

My mother was concerned about the stuttering. Every night, she would tap on a glass with a spoon and announce that it was my time to talk. Just me. Nobody else. The kitchen fell funeral-quiet. Forks stopped clattering and sisters stopped chattering. Of course, as soon as it was my turn, I became even more tongue-tied.

Then my mother had an idea. One day, she ventured into downtown Pittsburgh to the book department at Kaufmann’s department store, where she talked to a knowledgeable salesperson about a book that might speak to her ten-year-old daughter who stuttered.

She brought home a brand-new, shiny hardcover. Cleverly, it was not a book about a girl who stuttered, or the heroic story of how such a girl overcame stuttering. It was a book about writing. A book about wanting to be a writer. A book I would go on to read over and over. The book was Harriet the Spy, written and illustrated by Louise Fitzhugh.

And with it, my mother handed me a lined spiral notebook, in hopes that I’d write down all those things that I wasn’t able to say.

I read the book in gulps, lying on my stomach under the piano by the cozy heating vent. I read myself to sleep at night, just like Harriet. I still have my original hardback copy; it creaks with age. It smells of childhood and secrets and the underneaths of pianos and beds.

I soon began eating tomato sandwiches, pestering my mother for spy-approved dance classes, and conducting science experiments with my friend in the basement. I wore dress-up glasses with no lenses and adopted my own spy route. Pocket notebook in hand, that’s when I first began writing everything down. And spying.

Spying is bound to get you into trouble, as it did with Harriet. My own spying venture landed me in a world of trouble. I grew up in the suburbs, where, alas, nobody had a dumbwaiter for spying on rich folks like Mrs. Agatha K. Plumber. But dumbwaiter or not, I, too, wanted to spy on somebody interesting. Somebody other. Somebody famous.

I knew of only one famous person in our neighborhood: Bruno Sammartino. Bruno Sammartino was a famous wrestler. We watched him on Channel 11 on Saturday evenings, on the popular Studio Wrestling program hosted by Chilly Billy Cardille. Dad told us tales of Bruno’s historic match with Gorilla Monsoon.

Who wouldn’t want to spy on a famous wrestler? My plan was to sneak up to his house in an attempt to capture a glimpse of his exciting secret life. Then, à la Harriet, I would dutifully write down, for time and posterity, all the amazing things I uncovered.

I hopped on my red Schwinn Stingray Slik Chick bicycle and pedaled, fast and furious, over to Bruno’s street. WWHD? What Would Harriet Do? Ditch the bike at the corner, hidden in the bushes, of course. Then proceed to Bruno Sammartino’s house on foot. Glancing left and right, I made certain nobody was watching — no one even peering from behind a neighbor’s curtain. Crouching low to the ground, I crossed the yard and hid in the spiky bush outside his window.

I tried to quash the fear, the mixture of thrill and tomato sandwich rising up from my belly.

I took deep breaths to tame my heartbeat. Just as I was about to peek into the house, just as I was about to get a window into Famous-Studio-Wrestler-Bruno-Sammartino’s world, I froze.

Because what I hadn’t known was that Bruno Sammartino had a very large, very scary guard dog. A German shepherd with pointed black-tipped ears and the teeth of a wolf.

I remember the giant sound of a snarl.

I remember running.

I forgot I’d been told that dogs smell fear. I forgot to freeze in place. I forgot to think about what Harriet would do.

I ran. But not before I got bitten by Bruno Sammartino’s dog.

I ran all the way home. But as soon as I got to my front door, I realized I couldn’t tell my mother what really happened. If I did, I’d have to admit I’d been sneaking around and trespassing and spying on Bruno Sammartino.

So I told my older sisters. I showed them the gash on my arm where I’d been bitten. The bite was ugly and discolored, complete with what I was sure were tooth marks.

Their immediate reaction: “You have rabies!

I could not believe my ears. Rabies!? “What does that mean?” I wailed.

My sisters, who liked to tease me, soon had me convinced that I’d be rushed to the hospital, foaming at the mouth, where the doctor would strap me down and give me a shot with a needle the size of a baseball bat—right in my belly button.

Sisters.

I ran across the street to tell my best friend. Judy was to me as Sport was to Harriet. I showed her the dog bite. I asked her if she thought I had rabies.

“How do I know?” she shrugged. “But I know how we can find out.”

She rushed into another room and came back armed with Volume Q–R of the World Book Encyclopedia. She looked up “Rabies” and began reading aloud.

By this time, my arm was swollen at the site of the wound. It was turning black and blue. My arm felt numb and tingly, like when one of your limbs falls asleep.

As my friend read to me, we learned that there were three ways a person might detect if she has rabies.

1. At the site of the wound, it will begin to swell and turn black and blue.

I held up my arm as proof. “I have it!” I cried.

2. You will feel a sensation of numbness and tingling.

Bingo! My arm already felt as if it was asleep. I was going to have to get the big, giant needle in my belly button!

3. You will experience difficulty swallowing.

I did not have that symptom. Not until my friend read it to me from the encyclopedia. But the power of suggestion is strong, and I started to feel my throat closing up.

Judy dragged me by the shirtsleeve into her kitchen. There, she lined up glass after glass of water. I must have downed ten glasses of water! Twelve. Twenty. I’m certain I drank half of Lake Erie. We reasoned that as long as I could drink water—i.e., swallow—I did not have rabies.

In the end, my mother found out and took me to the doctor. Luckily, I was spared the baseball bat–sized needle; I did not have rabies after all. But they called the dog’s owner (yes, the famous Bruno Sammartino!) to find out when the dog had last had its shots.

I, and my Harriet-the-Spy top-secret spy mission, was discovered.

To this day, I still shrink down in my seat when we drive by the Sammartino house in our old neighborhood.

But that’s how my life as a writer began. As a spy. It was with that tiny Harriet-the-Spy notebook that I started to write. I stopped stuttering. I started to find my own voice.

Just as Ole Golly tells Harriet, if you’re going to be a writer, you’d better write everything down, and find your truth.

From the May/June 2014 Horn Book Magazine. Part of a special section commemorating the 50th anniversary of Harriet the Spy.

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4. Harriet and Me

Where to begin with how important Harriet the Spy has been in my life? I guess I’ll have to start with my childhood. I was in fourth grade, at a school book fair. I’d forgotten to bring money that day, which was a problem because there was one book I was desperate to have. It had a bright orange cover with bold yellow type and a girl wearing glasses climbing all over it. And somehow I knew I was going to love it and I had to read it. AND IT WAS THE ONLY COPY AT THE FAIR. So I did what any right-thinking person would do under the circumstances: I hid it. Specifically, I put it at the bottom of a pile of very drippy-looking books (I’m guessing they were Winnie-the-Pooh; I detested Winnie-the-Pooh back then) and kept my fingers crossed that no one would find it and I could buy it the next day. Which I did. And Harriet has been a part of my life ever since.

It occurs to me now that this is probably the sort of thing Harriet herself would have done in a similar situation. And that in turn tells you why she’s a character who has endured for so long. She’s resourceful, quick, a little unscrupulous, and entirely recognizable. A real person, in other words. You might not like her (and I’m still not sure I do), but you know this girl.

That school book fair was the first time I remember Harriet being important to me. The second time came much later. I was a young assistant editor, starting out in children’s books. I’d been promoted and assigned a mass market series to edit. It was a steady-selling series for the publisher, and I was excited to be working on something so substantial. Needless to say, I took my responsibilities very seriously. This manuscript was going to be IN PRINT, after all. It was going to be a book! It had to be good! The future of the nation’s youth and the success of the series were resting on my shoulders alone! (I’m exaggerating just a bit, but I really did feel this way.) Unfortunately, the manuscript was about the worst thing I’d ever read. I couldn’t even articulate why it was so awful, but it was complete dreck, and I had to fix it. Or at least make it readable and enjoyable enough to sell ten thousand copies. And I had absolutely no idea how to do this.

Okay, I said to myself. Think about some other books, books you love. What makes them so great? That’s when I remembered Harriet. And I went back and read it — really read it, this time. I took it apart, technically. I began to understand how good it is. And even though the manuscript I was working on was a YA book and Harriet was a middle-grade novel, I learned things from Harriet about dialogue, structure, character, action, and pacing that I was able to apply, in a different way, to the problematic manuscript I had to edit. Harriet saved my bacon that time, and also made me think about books and reading and writing in a new way. It’s actually ironic that Harriet helped me edit a conventional YA romance, because Harriet is the complete opposite of that; it is in fact a wildly subversive novel. Which of course only makes me love it more.

What’s so revolutionary about it? Let’s start with the fact that Harriet is not a nice little girl. She does illegal things when she spies. If she doesn’t actually break into Mrs. Agatha K. Plumber’s house, for instance, she comes pretty close. She writes terrible things about people — not just the people she spies on, but also her best friends. The thing is, she’s not doing it because she’s mean (although she certainly has her mean moments). She’s doing it because she’s honest and because she’s compelled to do it. The note-taking is part of who she is, what she is training herself to be: a writer and observer. It’s work, and she takes it very seriously. And her friends accept this about her, even after she hurts them with her brutally honest observations. They know she can’t change. Even when she’s forced to apologize, she does it out of practical necessity, because she wants to keep her friends, not because she really means it. And then she goes back to doing exactly what she was doing before. She hasn’t changed one bit, and her friends know it.

Just think about all of this! It’s a giant raspberry to the school of thought that says, A-character-in-a-children’s-book-must-change-and-grow-throughout-the-course-of-the-story. Or to the school that says, A-character-must-be-essentially-good-and-lovable. In fact, any rules or precepts or cutesy-poo ideas you might have had about children’s books fly right out the window when you read Harriet the Spy. There is no great moral lesson to be learned, no transformative change that happens to the protagonist. Above all, there is no tidiness. Harriet is real life in all its messiness and ambiguity, populated by real people who are also messy and ambiguous.

There is yet another reason to love Harriet, and it’s another editorial story, this one about its origin. In the book Dear Genius, the great Ursula Nordstrom, the visionary editor at Harper & Row during its golden era, writes about how Harriet the Spy came to be published. It all started with a reader’s report from Charlotte Zolotow, who was then a senior editor, urging Ursula to read the manuscript. “You have to get this writer to come in and talk. This isn’t a book, but it could be,” she wrote enthusiastically. And on what did she base her enthusiasm? Pages of Louise Fitzhugh’s drawings and disconnected narrative, which seemed to consist mostly of Harriet’s spy entries. Somehow Charlotte was able to see past this jumble of words and envision a book. She and Ursula worked with the author and helped her find the characters and story that became Harriet.

In this age of acquiring manuscripts from debut authors that have to be perfect or nearly perfect to be signed on, I find this story to be an inspiration, and most of all a reminder: you have to keep an open mind about the creative process. It’s messy and unpredictable and risky. But the rewards of taking that leap of faith are boundless.

Just read Harriet again and see.

From the May/June 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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5. Top 100 Children’s Novels #17: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

#17 Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964)
83 points

Obviously. – Denise Rinaldo

More brilliant and sophisticated than most any adult novel, and yet still captivating for my 7 year old. – Lee Behlman

I don’t know which I like best, the people on Harriet’s spy route, the fact that she makes up a middle initial, or the realistically painful way her classmates treat her when they find out she’s been spying on them. And let’s not forget Ole Golly, who makes Mary Poppins look like a complete fraud. Harriet is one of my favorite book characters of all time. - Kate Coombs

There are certainly dated elements, and elements that are so NYC-specific that I think my fifth grader brain must have rolled right over them when I first read it. Even so, there isn’t a girl who could read this an not immediately want to grab a notebook and start up her own neighborhood spy route. There’s a lesson about gossip and secrets and friendship and just plain old growing up at it’s heart, but’s it’s Harriet’s self imposed “job” that’s so thrilling. Harriet M. Welsch was a take charge gal, and I wanted to be just like her. I think, or at least I hope, kids still feel that way reading it today. – Nicole Johnston

“Harriet, you are going to have to do two things, and you don’t like either one of them: 1) You have to apologize. 2) You have to lie . . . But to yourself you must always tell the truth.”

Any summaries I find of this book tend to sound a little trite, so I guess I go with the one on the book itself. “Harriet M. Welsch is a spy. She’s staked out a spy route, and she writes down everything about everyone she sees – including her classmates and her best friends – in her notebook. ‘I bet the lady with the cross-eye looks in the mirror and feels just terrible.’ ‘Pinky Whitehead will never change. Does his mother hate him? If I had him I’d hate him.’ Then Harriet loses track of her notebook, and it ends up in the wrong hands. Before Harriet can stop them, her friends have read the always truthful, sometimes awful things she’s written about each of them. Will Harriet find a way to put her life and her friendships back together?”

You can get quite a bit of backstory on Harriet the Spy from the letters of her editor Ursula Nordstrom. In Leonard Marcus’s Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom we learn that “Prior to the publication of Harriet, LF [Louise Fitzhugh] had been known as the illustrator of a send-up of Eloise called Suzuki Beane, by Sandra Scopperttone.” I have searched in vain to see a copy of Suzuki Beane for years, by the way. Apparently there is a copy lurking within my library. Someday I shall request it and see what all the fuss was about.

In a letter to Charlotte Zolotow, Nordstrom mentioned the beginnings of Harriet the Spy in this way. “Anyhow, if you hadn’t called my attention to that Fitzhugh unpublishable picture book we would never have drawn Harriet the Spy out of Louise.” She related the full story of Louise’s life and writing in a later letter to Joan Robbins. You see Zolotow, then a senior editor at Harper, had showed Nordstrom some sample pages from Fitzhugh of what would become Harriet’s words about her classmates. So they brought in Louise to explain to her what they wanted the book to be. “Louise sat sullenly, hands jammed into her pockets, while we expressed enthusiasm over what we’d seen . . . After at least an hour she looked up and said, ‘So you’re not really interested, are you?’ We a

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6. Ypulse Essentials: Gender Bending Dress Codes, 'SNL' For A Digital Generation, Mobile Tech In The Classroom

Gender bending dress codes (in high school. The New York Times, reg. required, explores the complex issues of safety, self-expression and sexual orientation sparked by students who cross dress and how different schools across the country handle the... Read the rest of this post

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7. Books I felt I ought to have liked but really didn’t: Harriet the Spy


images-11Before picking up HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh again, I tried to remember why I didn’t like it many years ago. And all I could remember was that it gave me an uncomfortable, squirmy, unhappy sort of feeling that stemmed from reading about Harriet doing things she shouldn’t that were clearly going to cause Bad Things to happen. Now what’s odd is I wasn’t really a goody-two-shoes kid, and I liked lots of other books about characters that were naughty, or even who did things I felt they shouldn’t, who did things that I saw as hurtful, etc. So there must have been something more to it than that, but my memory consists entirely of the squirmy feeling.*

And then I opened the book, and the degree to which this is an obnoxious girl with no discernable redeeming qualities, with whom I cannot sympathize at all, and who is not even interesting to make up for it, absolutely bowled me over. Harriet’s attitude towards the people on the subway when they go to visit Ole Golly’s mother really turned me off. I began to get slightly more interested in Harriet as a character only when her spy notes began to be less observations and more musings. Like:

What is too old to have fun? You can’t be too old to spy except if you were fifty you might fall off a fire escape, but you could spy around on the ground a lot.

Harriet’s reaction to being an onion for the Christmas play went a long way towards endearing her to me as well, so by mid-book I actually cared about the main character, which is helpful. I vaguely recollect that my original reaction to Harriet’s friends reading her notebook was more on the friends’ side, but this time through I thoroughly empathized with Harriet, particularly as she goes through the subsequent days miserable and misunderstood. So from that turning point on I was properly hooked, and I really did enjoy the rest of the book, but I likely wouldn’t have gotten that far naturally (like, without being determined to finish and blog about the book).

A few other random thoughts:

  • What the hell kind of a name is Ole Golly? I mean, seriously.
  • I think Harriet seems like a 9 year old, not an 11 year old. The things she wonders about, her level of awareness (or lack thereof) of her friends’ and classmates’ having feelings, and just her general behavior, don’t ring true of an 11-year old for me. That made it hard for me to buy into the character; I eventually just decided that in my mind she’d be 9, and that made it all work much better.
  • I suspect as a child I was confused by the progressive-type school Harriet attends, particularly as it would have seemed incongruous with the other time period cues given in terms of the parents’ behavior, etc.
  • I’m not sure I find it believable that Harriet was permitted to print the newsletter items she did - but I enjoyed the twist of her not actually being reformed or learning her lesson.

*I recall a different kind of squirmy feeling from some books that I loved but that creeped me out or were deeply affecting in a way that stuck for days after reading (especially Time windows book), so that I started hesitating to re-read them, even though I loved them, because it was too big a psychological commitment. I do a similar thing with some movies now - I really want to see them, but I’m sure they’ll leave me depressed, and I’m never willing to commit to that so I keep really wanting to see them but when the time comes to actually sit down and watch something I choose fluff.

Posted in Childhood Reading, Fitzhugh, Louise, Harriet the Spy

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8. The Tiger’s Bookshelf: The Red Balloon Book Club

Some children’s bookstores are legendary–and one of them is Saint Paul, Minnesota’s Red Balloon Book Shop which recently began an instore book group (called Chapter and Verse) that would be worth moving to Minnesota for!

Perhaps the only thing more fun than reading a good book is reading a good book that transcends all age categories–and then talking about it. It has always seemed peculiar that more book groups have not been formed for adults who love children’s literature–we at PaperTigers hosted an online bookgroup, The Tiger’s Choice, during 2008 for just that purpose, but the intimacy of a book group does not translate quite so effectively to cyberspace.

On the other hand, bookstores are the perfect venue for book groups. You know, when you go to a book group at your favorite bookstore, that you will have something in common with the other participants–you all love to read and you all love the same bookstore!

When I was pregnant with my first son in Fairbanks, Alaska, I began to rediscover the delights of a well-written children’s book, and was sure that I was the only adult who still frequented the young readers’ bookshelves of my local library. One evening a friend and I were chatting about what we’d read when Georgianna lowered her voice and confessed, “I read children’s books.” Suddenly we were a two-person book group, happily discussing A Wrinkle in Time and Harriet the Spy.

It’s so wonderful to know that children’s literature readers no longer feel clandestine and have places as congenial as the Red Balloon Bookshop to host their discussions! If you’ve been lucky enough to be a member of this group, please tell us about it–if you have another favorite bookshop that provides this opportunity, do let us know. And to Chapter and Verse at the Red Balloon–we’re on our way!

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9. Book Review: Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh

     "I want to know everything, everything," screeched Harriet suddenly, lying back and bouncing up and down on the bed. "Everything in the world, everything, everything. I will be a spy and know everything."

     "It won't do you a bit of good to know everything if you don't do anything with it. Now get up, Miss Harriet the Spy, you're going to sleep now." And with that Ole Golly marched over and grabbed Harriet by the ear.

Overview:
Harriet M. Welsch is a sixth grader with a purpose: she wants to be a spy when she grows up. To get ready, she keeps a notebook filled with observations about everyone and everything she sees. She even has a regular route around the neighborhood where she does her spy work, and she jots everything down in her ever-present notebook - including her opinions on each matter or person. 

She even writes about her friends, and what she writes about them is sometimes not so nice, even if it is true. But one day, Harriet's notebook is lost. When it turns up, it's in the hands of the very friends she's been spying on and writing about. And then, Harriet finds out more than she cares to know about spying, and writing, and friendship - and the consequences of being brutally honest.

For Teachers and Librarians:
Though Harriet the Spy was originally published in 1964, its themes of friendship, family relationships, and honesty are still as relevant today as they were back then. Harriet is not a perfect kid. She throws tantrums. She spies on people. She writes sometimes mean things about them. But the things she writes are in the spirit of being honest, even if they are things she would never say out loud. When her spy notebook turns up in the hands of the very friends she writes about, she learns some hard lessons about the conflicting ideas of maintaining professional honesty vs. the sometime need to fudge the truth a bit in the interests of maintaining important relationships.

Today's kids go through the same quandries - they just come about through different sets of circumstances. Let your students compare Harriet's situations to some they've found themselves in. Did they handle their situations the same as Harriet, or differently? Would they change how they did it after reading this book? How do they feel about Ole Golly's admonition, once Harriet's notebook has been read and her friends began to retaliate, that "1. You have to apologize. 2. You have to lie. Otherwise you are going to lose a friend." Let them discuss what they think that means. Have them compare and contrast "white lies" meant to shield a friend from unpleasantness, and other lies which could be hurtful or dangerous.

There is a lot going on in this book: friendship, family relationships, being a kid, dealing with school "stuff," having a loved one move away, unconventional childhoods. Whatever theme you choose to focus on, you can be sure your students will have much to identify with.

For Parents, Grandparents and Caregivers:
Kids today deal with much the same issues that Harriet deals with in Harriet the Spy. They just go through it in a different time, and in slightly different circumstances. When your kids read this, or you read it to them, be prepared for lots of stories about what goes on in their own lives at school and with their friends - those places and situations that parents rarely get a glimpse of. Maybe this book will help your child work through their own difficult times with friends or school. Maybe it will prompt them to bring things up to you, and seek your help in figuring it all out. Even if nothing is going on, your kiddos will enjoy this sometimes sad, sometimes tough to read, sometimes funny, sometimes heartwarming, but always entertaining book.

For the Kids:
It's every kid's nightmare. One day, you loose a journal, or a notebook, or a note, or a PDA, and it's full of stuff you think about your friends but never were going to let them see. Just your own private thoughts. Because let's face it - even your best friends have things that bug you, and sometimes you just gotta let it out somehow, but you'd never say it to their face 'cause it would hurt their feelings. What would you do if you lost that thing, and your friends found it...and read it? If you read Harriet the Spy, you can see how one kid lived through it, and what she had to deal with, and most importantly, how she survived it.

For Everyone Else:
Harriet the Spy is one of those titles everyone remembers, sometimes with a cringe, because what Harriet has to deal with is so not fun. Being a kid is not easy - especially when your most private thoughts somehow end up on public display. Go on and pick up a copy. Remind yourself that being a kid was not as easy as it seems now that you're not a kid. And remind yourself that, just as kids can learn from adults, sometimes an adult can learn valuable life lessons...from a kid.

Wrapping Up:
Harriet the Spy is a true classic, with an enduring theme and that personal connection that readers long for in a book. Find a copy for yourself, and get reading today.

Title: Harriet the Spy
Author and Illustrator: Louise Fitzhugh
Pages: 320
Reading Level: Ages 9-12
Publisher and Date: Yearling, May 8, 2001
Edition: Reprint
Language: English
Published In: United States
Price: $6.50
ISBN-10: 0440416795
ISBN-13: 978-0440416791


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10. Children's Classics

Claire, my third-grader niece, is in love with books. "Classics!" she says, when you ask her what she likes. "The Cricket in Times Square!" she declares, a recent favorite. Books that have survived, that have been loved, that are time tested and therefore true. She reads them to herself; she invites others to read to her; she recounts the tales in loving detail (then breaks into an all-out rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas").

Talking with Claire takes me back. To Heidi and Pippi Longstockings. To Harriet the Spy, The Secret Garden, Doctor Doolittle, and Black Beauty. It floods me with the desire to fill her library with more books to love—with classic classics or with books, newly written, that feel timeless. So far I've bought her the following for Christmas: River of Words, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Penderwicks, and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. (Along with necklace, for she's as pretty as can be.)

I wonder what you might suggest.

15 Comments on Children's Classics, last added: 12/3/2008
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11. Is Passion Old-Fashioned?

Over on the PUBYAC listserv, Jan Hanson of the Longview Public Library in Washington is looking for it: "A HS teacher called and is asking for ideas of books that illustrate a teen with passion, as in "a passion for dancing" or a "passion for football."

I love this query; it's requests like these that make us think about what books for kids do and don't do. Off the top of my head I think of that Joan Bauer book about a girl with a passion for shoe-selling, Hope Was Here Rules of the Road, and several of Chris Crutcher's early books feature teens with a passion for various sports. Oh, and that extremely high-minded but badly dated Madeleine L'Engle book about a fledgling actress, The Joys of Love. What else? Generalizing wildly, too often it seems that intense interest in something that isn't another person is viewed in YA books as dysfunctional or simply as a way to i. d. a character; i.e. "Jane loves music," but do we ever see her practice?

P.S. I put Harriet the Spy in the tags because she's the most passionate person I know in children's books, plus I've just started listening to Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost, an adult mystery that begins, anyway, with a very Harriet-like third-grader.

22 Comments on Is Passion Old-Fashioned?, last added: 9/12/2008
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12. The Tiger’s Bookshelf: Harriet Potter?

When a man recently went to a bookstore in search of his book group’s latest selection, he never dreamed that a clerk would question who the book was for, nor did he expect an unsolicited analysis of his character. Yet that’s what happened to one purchaser of Aryn Kyle’s novel, The God of Animals, when the woman who waited on him asked who he was buying the book for, and when learning it was for the customer himself, informed him that men who read “women’s fiction” were “sensitive.”

The customer was understandably unsettled by this encounter, which he later discussed on National Public Radio’s program, The Bryant Park Project. As a bookseller for many years, and as a parent of two sons, I’m perplexed and unsettled by this story as well, on a couple of different levels.

Even if we ignore the fact that The God of Animals is an amazing novel about the modern-day American West, in which one of the central relationships is that between a father and daughter, and is a book that should never be limited to readers of only one gender, the assumption that there are “men’s books” and “women’s books” and never the twain shall meet is one that is alien to any bookstore I have ever known. Yet at the same time, as a children’s bookseller, I often heard, and have espoused myself, the point of view that “girls will read books about boys but boys will rarely read books about girls.”

Matilda

There are of course exceptions–I’ve yet to find any child who will not devour Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass trilogy seems to have met few gender-based barriers. Yet I’ve learned from bitter experience that offering a boy Harriet the Spy or my all-time favorite Mistress Masham’s Repose often will evoke the disappointed response, “Oh, it’s about a girl.”

When my sons were small, they loved the adventures of Dorothy in the land of Oz and Alice whether she was in Wonderland or through the looking glass as much as they did Peter Pan or Rat, Mole and Toad in The Wind in the Willows. And certainly Marjorie’s Brothers One and Two seem to enjoy books about females as well as males.

So when and how does this divergence in taste occur? Or do we just assume that it will occur and turn it into a self-fulfilling prophesy? In your experience, do boys avoid books in which girls take the leading role? If so, how can we broaden that point of view? And what would have become of J.K Rowling if she had written about Harriet Potter?

0 Comments on The Tiger’s Bookshelf: Harriet Potter? as of 4/23/2008 5:50:00 PM
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13. Beyond Harry Potter

Most of us know that bright children frequently read books written for adults, but it’s less commonly recognized that bright adults frequently read books written for children.  (Harry Potter, anyone?)  No matter how old or how young we are, what unites us as readers is that deep feeling of satisfaction that comes with turning the last page and thinking “Now that was a good book.”  

T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, A Wrinkle in Time, Harriet the Spy, and  The Lord of the Rings  are only a few of the books that have been read by adults and children with equal delight, and have been claimed by both groups as favorites.  The element that these books all share are the magic created by a writer who placed highly original characters in a world that was constructed by considering the story, not the age of its readers, nor any underlying didacticism. 

The people we hope to have in our new book group are readers who can sink into a children’s book with pleasure and want to talk about it in a community of like-minded bibliophiles, whether they be eight or eighty, whether they live in Peoria or Phnom Penh.  Our goal is to host an ongoing conversation in which people from all over the world, adults and children, can unite over books that they all love and want to discuss online. 

The books that are featured will fall into the range of readers between the ages of eight and twelve and will be set in countries all around the world.  We hope  that the magic of literature will help to bring together the inhabitants of far-flung continents, in the same way that the book discussions will bring together people of different generations and different cultures. 

This is a book group that exists in whatever timeframe you choose—send your responses  while you’re still in your pajamas,  while you’re eating lunch, or when you should be doing your homework.  Send your comments and respond to other readers whenever you like—it’s that easy.  If you don’t like the book that’s been chosen, let us know.  If it reminds you of others that you’ve read, tell us.  If you don’t like the questions that have been posed about the book, write about the points that are meaningful to you.  Suggest titles for future discussion. Argue, discover a new point of view, chat about books—for many of us there’s nothing better than that.  Opening a book opens a new world to explore, and a good book makes that world a part of its reader forever.  Let’s discover new worlds together through the magic of books.   

 

 

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14. Hack Job, Harriet the Spy, and Don't Even Ask

I find myself unwilling to give up an hour or so to go to the beauty salon for a haircut. So I chopped my own hair a few days ago. Yesterday, someone I barely know said, "I LOVE your haircut!"

Harriet the Spy: How did I go all my life without reading this book? I started it a couple of nights ago, and I'm savoring every bit of it. Harriet is one of my favorite types of characters--independent, adventurous (all that breaking and entering!), and smart. The interior dialogue is thoughtful and analytical.

Insomnia has returned over the past few nights, and I was still awake at 1:30 am. I groped for my book light and opened Harriet, forcing myself to read slowly. It took great discipline for me to save the last thirty pages for tonight.

Here's my favorite quote from the book: "Writers don't care what they eat. They just care what you think of them." (Sport to Harriet regarding his dad.) HA! So true! Especially since I understand it as "They care only how you esteem their work."

Sometimes people ask how's my writing going. I still love saying, "I sold my book!" which is how I say it. But here's how I think it: OMG! I sold my bookISOLDMYBOOK! These same people ask a few innocent questions, and then I'm off, giving them my two sentence pitch, telling them how I always wanted to be a writer, how I used to be a technical writer (at this point, I'm telling myself Shut up, already! yet I don't--I'm too excited about the whole thing--I have to hear it again!). I told my sister Don't even ask me about the writing unless you have an unscheduled block of time.

That's all for now. Hope all your writing is going well.

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15. When Frog and Toad Are More Than Friends

Who needs old closet case Dumbledore when Claire has put together a first-class list of out-n-proud GLBTQ-and-sometimes-Y fiction?

I've got an editorial in the upcoming Horn Book about the outing of Dumbledore, who in fact joins a long line of characters who coulda-woulda-shoulda be gay if the reader so inclines--like Shakespeare in Susan Cooper's King of Shadows as we discussed here a few weeks ago. Or Harriet the Spy. (Or Sport, Beth Ellen, or Janie.) Betsy and Tacy! Frank and Joe! Nancy and George! Or not, too--the point is that characters become your imaginary friends whose lives, loves, and destinies can become what you need them to be.

I'm reminded of 1965, the momentous year when Barbie became flexible. Durable characters always are.

4 Comments on When Frog and Toad Are More Than Friends, last added: 12/26/2007
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16. Developmentally Delighted

This Newsweek story about the over-diagnosis of developmental problems in kids reminds me of a discussion in my children's lit class in library school. We were all enthusiastically talking about Harriet the Spy until one student, an infiltrator from the psych. department, sputtered, "I can't believe you all are recommending children read this book about a sociopath."

5 Comments on Developmentally Delighted, last added: 9/17/2007
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17. Matthew Insists on Puffed Sleeves

There's been some discussion recently about blogging and inclusivity that came to mind when I read this article Martha showed me about kids and their cliques. Marion Hawthorne lives.

As Monica Edinger pointed out in the post linked above, it's not just kids. As Barbara Grizzuti Harrison wrote of her adolescence among the Greenwich Village Beats, "when I came of age in the 1950s, everyone one knew was an Outsider, and proud of it; and every Outsider belonged to a privileged Inner Circle of Outsiders, and then we grew up." But not really: when, decades later, Harrison reviewed Beat poet Diane Di Prima's memoir for the NYTBR, she devoted her entire review to proving that Di Prima hadn't been one of the cool kids, really. It never ends. I'm not sure it can, heck, I'm not sure it should. As I once pointed out in a different context, this is how we got Protestants.

And today I read that kids are compiling hit lists of their enemies. Should we worry or be relieved that the Times chose to run this as a "Fashion & Styles" story?

11 Comments on Matthew Insists on Puffed Sleeves, last added: 4/7/2007
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18. Listener Input Show #6

In this episode, we discuss the way in which books can influence our lives, talk about Sheree Fitch’s latest book of poems, If I Had A Million Onions, and play a listener submitted review:

We hope you’ll tell us about one of your favourite books too�

Send your review (five-minutes or less) as an MP3 file in email to justonemorebook@gmail.com, phone it in to our listener feedback line (206-350-6487), leave a two-minute MyChingo, or send your text review in email.

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