If you were to take me back to my elementary school today…and if everything was the same as it was when I was a student there…I could show you the exact place Harriet the Spy resided on the school library’s shelves. It was only there when I didn’t have it checked out, which was not often. Eventually, Mrs. Schultz, the librarian, talked to me about the importance of “expanding one’s reading list so that others might have a chance to read the books one loved.” In other words, if the check-out card in the front of the book listed Melanie Heuiser and only Melanie Heuiser, there was a problem. So, eventually, I resorted to reading Harriet standing by the shelves on which she lived — a little fix each time our class went to the library. It was not a good day when someone else checked it out before I got there.
Oh how I loved that book! My first New York book (I still love New York books!). A book about a fairly disagreeable girl, a girl who spied on people, a girl who kept record of her observations in a notebook. Harriet M. Welsch and I had a profound kinship. I, too, carried various notebooks (and do still!) to record my observations. I, too, was introduced to Great Thoughts at an early age by Olé Golly — one of her favorites (and mine) being: “Life is very strange.” Most of all, what I loved about the book, I think, was that it took seriously that life is not always black and white, right and wrong. Friendships don’t always go smoothly. Sometimes it can be difficult to find your way.
I never owned the book as a kid. Once I began buying for my own children’s bookshelves, I included it, of course. The blue paperback version. I could not wait to read it with them. My son beat me to it — read it on his own. My daughter read it with me when we read it with our mother-daughter book club — the girls were nine. They all loved it. A couple of them dressed up as Harriet for Halloween that year.
The discussion around the book was fascinating. When we mothers asked them in what time period they thought the book took place they said, without any hesitation, “Ours.”
“You think this book is about kids today?” we asked. “You think it takes place now?”
Five heads bobbed up and down. We asked what evidence they had of this. They didn’t have many particulars — they just knew. We pointed out there were no computers, no cell-phones in the story. Harriet doesn’t even watch television. The girls seemed bemused by this, but not at all convinced. They were floored when we showed them the copyright — 1964. It was written before most of their mothers were born.
I’ve read many of the books I loved as a child with my kids. Many seem a little quaint, even to me, and all are clearly set in the past. (Most were set in the past when I read them!) Harriet the Spy, however, feels absolutely contemporary still.
Louise Fitzhugh changed the course of children’s literature when she gave us Harriet (fifty years ago this week!). Anita Silvey tells the story on Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac. Harriet The Spy has felt real to a couple of generations of kids by now, and I suspect the book will continue to speak to kids in future generations. I, for one, can’t wait to read the book with my grandkids (many, many years from now!)