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Fair warning: a majority of this article was written with the presumption that one has read the book. If you haven’t and if you care about spoilers for a book that is 57 years old, I recommend holding off on reading this and finishing it up first.
AppleTV released a new animated series based on Harriet the Spy at the end of 2021. This is the third time that the 11-year-old spy has been given the screen treatment. The first was back 1996 by Nickelodeon, starring Michelle Tratchenberg as the titular character. Then in 2010, Disney released a modernized movie subtitled Blog Wars, starring Jennifer Stone, better known as Harper from Wizards of Waverly Place, in the lead role.
While adaptations are commonplace in Hollywood, it still may surprise people that Harriet still lingers. The book was originally published in 1964 and since then has kept its tight grip on readers. There have been many children’s books published that year that most people alive likely couldn’t even name. Yet somehow this precocious, plucky, and some may say persnickety little girl has outlasted them all. Why is it that?
First, a little background on how this book entered my life. My introduction to Harriet came during the year I lived in Houston. I found comfort in reading which, to be fair, is something I still do to this day. A select few of the books I read in the two years after my mom passed away are ones that still linger in my memory. That’s why, regardless of how I may view it now, Love You Forever left a lasting impression, something I expanded on a bit ago.
When I first read Harriet, I thought it was the greatest thing ever. I was 9 at the time but I also had dreams of being a writer (not so much a spy though). Harriet’s constant need to write down her observations hit home with me. Honestly, this has always been, and will continue to be, one of my childhood favorites. I always have warm memories of it, something that I was concerned about when I picked it up for a reread to prepare for this article. I needn’t have worried because, even viewing it as an adult and a parent, I still appreciated it both on the same level that 9-year-old me did.
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For me, classics are book that stand the test of time. They are the books that can be read years after they were originally published and still be applicable. It’s not necessarily something that a professor could teach an entire semester on, although there is some overlap there. No, books are classics because readers can always see themselves in some aspect or commiserate with a specific experience in the book.
And that’s why Harriet is a children’s classic. Readers of any age can pick it up and find themselves somewhere in the pages of the book. They may even learn a lesson or two along the way. Children relate to the characters, but so do adults. For example, Mrs. Welsh has a line that just hit differently for me. When I was younger, I thought Harriet’s parents terribly unfair all around. Now, as a mom who has been working from home since March of 2020 and added teacher to the hats I wore for the last school year, I see things differently. When Harriet snidely asks her mom what does she do for work, her response is, “A lot of unseen, unappreciated things.”
This isn’t intended to be a barb towards Harriet or her dad. But honestly it’s a matter of fact statement that a lot of parents feel at some point in their life. When I read that this last time, I laughed out loud at the sheer honesty of it.
There are multiple reasons that this is such a staple in childhood reading and why it will remain a children’s classic.
First of all, there is the fact that it deals with changes of all kinds, something that we all face down in every season of our life. I appreciated Harriet’s resistance to things changing; many of us have that same attitude when it heads our way.
The story opens with Harriet about to start 6th grade. Nowadays, 6th grade means the start of middle school, but it wasn’t always that way; typically it was the end of elementary school. And that is the case here. It’s mentioned in passing, but the story opens with her knowing that next year is going to be different simply because that is when schools will become segregated by gender and she will only have female classmates. Which means one of her best friends, Sport, won’t be with her anymore.
That’s hard to process as a child. One of the reasons that middle school is such a shock because the kids you grew up with in elementary school are no longer there. It’s hard to be a small fish in a big pond when the other schools of small fish have never swam with you. And, while it wasn’t happening in the now, Harriet knew it was coming. The book even calls this out with the following line:
“It made Harriet sad to think that after this year Sport wouldn’t be in school.”
It’s a brief moment but the fact that it’s there is telling. Harriet is not one to linger in sadness or mince words, so it’s stated bluntly. But still she knows it’s there.
Then there’s the dismissal of her nurse, Ole Golly. While I do feel that 11 is too old to have a nanny, there are extenuating circumstances. Regardless, she had been a constant presence in Harriet’s life and her removal took a lot of adjustment. Reading as an adult, I realized that Ole Golly was going to leave anyway since she was marrying Mr. Waldenstein; the way it went down was abrupt and quick, giving Harriet no time to process. As with all other sudden changes, it took time for her to really realize what that meant. She would think of telling Ole Golly something only to remember she was gone.
Ole Golly’s sudden absence from her life is one of the things that had such a catalyst on Harriet for the rest of the book.
A lot of critics have mentioned that this book is just mean spirited and that is why they don’t like it. To which I say…
When was the last time you were around a child of this age? They can be mean because they don’t have any filters. That is something you learn as you get older, if you’re lucky. Some people keep that mean spirited nature well into adulthood. But yeah, kids are this mean sometimes. That is one of the most relatable and still accurate things about this book and I honestly appreciate it when books are that honest.
True, Harriet has no tact, but that’s because she hasn’t learned the skill yet.
One of the best quotes about tact comes from Buffy’s Cordelia Chase, who said, “Tact is just not saying true stuff.” And honestly? There’s truth to that. Harriet is not always kind but she doesn’t hold back. She says, or rather writes, what she thinks with her whole chest and there is no doubt of how she feels.
Even Ole Golly is blunt, sometimes to the point of being hurtful. One piece of evidence for this is in her letter to Harriet towards the end where she wrote that she didn’t miss Harriet because she didn’t linger in the past.
However, the truth is always a double-edged sword, which leads us to the next topic.
Harriet writes almost everything down and has absolutely no filter when it comes to her observations. Are they harsh? Oh for sure. Are they super judgmental? Boy howdy yes. But then again, she was 11 and hadn’t quite learned the fine art of tact. That is something that you learn through experience .
The observations are all well and good until the notebook gets ready by her classmates. The biggest betrayals are what she wrote about Sport and Janie, which understandably and rightfully hurt them. All of us have had uncharitable thoughts about our loved ones, but we would never tell them. We care about them and love them even when we’re not being kind to them.
And, even though it’s only implied, the other kids learn a lesson too. Her notebook did say “Private,” and while I completely get the temptation of that siren’s call, it comes with a heavy dose of don’t ask if you don’t want to know. Because once her classmates opened that Pandora’s box, they couldn’t close it or unlearn what they found out.
Sometimes ignorance is bliss and that was a lesson that those kids learned that day. Because Harriet still liked them for the most part (or as much as she could). But when they read the ugliest thoughts she had about them; they couldn’t move past that. Because again…you can’t unknow something.
When Ole Golly writes to Harriet at the end, she lays her current drama down nice and neat.
“Naturally you put down the truth in your notebooks…And naturally those notebooks should not be read by anyone else, but if they are, then Harriet, you are going to have to do two things, and you don’t like either of them:
- You have to apologize
- You have to lie”
Harriet hurt her friend’s feelings, and that’s a tough experience to go through. True, this is something we’re all going to do. And while Janie betrayed Harriet’s confidence by reading a private journal, her making those uncharitable thoughts permanent by writing them down is what it comes down to.
When a pen is put to paper like that, the thoughts become permanent. There’s no going back on a journal. You don’t get the option to recant a diary entry. When you write it down, it’s forever .
And that’s important because it’s one thing to have those thoughts and never write them down. Then they’re fleeting . But putting them down where you can revisit them later? That makes the cut a bit deeper every time.
The ending is realistic in that there is no happily ever after. There isn’t a tearful reunion between Sport, Janie, and Harriet. They simply choose to accept the public apology she made, not just to them but her other classmates who read about themselves in the journal.
I don’t think Harriet was sorry for what she wrote and that’s fine. I know that she calls it a spy notebook throughout the entire book but ultimately it is a journal. And journals are personal and private. Those words were never intended to be read by anyone other than Harriet. They were her private thoughts and intended for her private recollections. So, I do think she was sorry that they found out.
This is something that Ole Golly mentioned in the letter as well: while Harriet should always be truthful to herself that when it got out she would have to make amends. Ole Golly tells Harriet what it takes some people a long time to understand, which is that sometimes, it is okay to lie. This is one of the last thoughts that Harriet has before rejoining Janie and Sport at the end of the book:
“Ole Golly is right. Sometimes you have to lie”.
Janie and Sport probably knew she was lying in her apology by saying what she wrote was a lie. They’d been her best friends her entire life and those types of friends, for the most part, know the ins and the outs of you, including how viciously mean you can be. They were undoubtedly party to her rants about Marion, Rachel, and even poor Pinky. That said, they were surprised to find themselves in the journal as well, and naturally had hurt feelings over what was written.
Harriet the Spy is a children’s classic because of how real it is. These children could just as easily be kids you see in your neighborhood or in your child’s classroom. They are kids who react in realistic ways when they’re hurt.
Only a select few children’s books stay as long as Harriet the Spy has. It isn’t perfect by any means and there are still some eyebrow raising scenes. Still, I wholeheartedly believe that Future Me will get to smile at a grandchild if they want to me show me this awesome book that they just discovered and it is this one.