A FEW OTHER EVENTS FOR
OCTOBER 21:

  • Happy birthday Ursula K. Le Guin (A Wizard of Earthsea) and Ann Cameron (The Stories Julian Tells).
  • It’s the birth date of Janet Ahlberg (1944 -1994), Each Peach Pear Plum, The Jolly Postman; and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
  • It’s also the birth date of Alfred Nobel (1833–1896), who instituted the Nobel Prizes. Read The Man Behind the Peace Prize: Alfred Nobel by Kathy-Jo Wargin, illustrated by Zachary Pullen.
  • Ferdinand Magellan discovers a channel of water between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in 1520, now known as the Strait of Magellan in South America. Read To The Edge of the World by Michele Torrey and MVP: Magellan Voyage Project by Douglas Evans, illustrated by John Shelley.
  • In 1879 Thomas Edison tests first practical electric lightbulb, which lasts 13.5 hours. Read The Lightbulb by Joseph Wallace, illustrated by Toby Wells.
  • In 1921 President Warren G. Harding delivers a speech against lynching in the southern United States. Read A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Philippe Lardy.
  • It’s Babbling Day. It’s also Count Your Buttons Day. Read Corduroy by Don Freeman.

On October 21, 1964, a book appeared that critics consider the beginning of modern fiction for children. Before that day, it had been controversial in its own publishing house, causing disagreement among the members of Harper & Row’s children’s book department. The gatekeepers of children’s books wanted to keep it out of the hands of children! After all, its protagonist wrote and said bad things about people, broke into New York City apartments, and didn’t really change her ways over the course of the narrative. A bad child—defiant to the end. She was called “one of the most fatiguing, ill-mannered children imaginable.”

If you have guessed that the book of the day is Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, you are correct. If you read it in childhood, you will probably disagree with those gatekeepers. But Harriet was different from her peers, the characters in the books of the sixties, and she remains a quirky protagonist even for today. The book did not begin as a single volume, but as a series of diary entries by Harriet. Charlotte Zolotow and Ursula Nordstrom of Harper helped Fitzhugh flush out a full story. In essence, they used the Socratic Method, asking the author questions such as “Why was Harriet angry?” Then Fitzhugh would write a bit more narrative to answer that question, before Zolotow and Nordstrom would pose another question.

In the end, they helped her craft a book that children would love, and adults, for a short time, would hate. Susan Hirschman, who worked in the offices of Harper at the time, believed that Nordstrom, having set picture books on a different path by publishing Where the Wild Things Are, had decided that she was also going to change contemporary fiction. Certainly by the end of the sixties a new wave of realism had swept over children’s books.

In the story eleven-year-old Harriet M. Welsch always carries a spy notebook and records her observations. Stuck with two of the most feckless parents in all of children’s literature, young Harriet dresses like a spy—dark hooded sweatshirt and blue jeans—and eavesdrops in dumbwaiters or listens through doors. She writes brutally honest observations about her classmates. Unfortunately, her diary ends up being read by them—and Harriet and her life begin to spin out of control. Any child who has ever felt a victim of cruelty can identify with Harriet.

After the publication of the book, children began forming spy clubs; they hid under tables in schools, taking notes. Harriet inspired many readers to think that they could dress or act differently than their peers. And, as Perri Klass writes in Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book, decades of writers have learned from the book: “From Harriet the Spy I discovered the pleasure, even the addictive pleasure, of having a notebook and writing things down.”

Happy birthday Harriet the Spy. You can celebrate with her by taking a virtual tour of her neighborhood.

Here’s a passage from Harriet the Spy:

Her spy clothes consisted first of all of an ancient pair of blue jeans, so old that her mother had forbidden her to wear them, but which Harriet loved because she had fixed up the belt with hooks to carry her spy tools. Her tools were a flashlight, in case she were ever out at night, which she never was, a leather pouch for her notebook, another leather case for extra pens, a water canteen, and a boy scout knife which had, among other features a screwdriver and a knife and fork which collapsed. She had never had occasion to eat anywhere, but someday it might come in handy.

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Originally posted October 21, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: Family, New York, School
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Harriet the Spy
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COMMENTS

  1. Barb says:

    Just the other day a school librarian wrote on LM_NET about a parent challenging Harriet the Spy!
    ” Our 5th grade class reads Harriet the Spy as a class assignment. A parent
    is concerned that the overall message is that “sometimes you have to lie” and
    that
    Harriet’s meanness, hurtfulness, and lack of respect for authority is actually
    rewarded when Harriet becomes editor.

    The parent wants to know why we think this is a good book.”

  2. suzi w. says:

    somehow this is a book i didn’t read until adulthood. i would have loved it as a child–I related easily to Harriet’s lonely childhood, I didn’t have siblings until I was 10.

    I guess I read it after the movie came out in the mid 90s.

  3. I haven’t visited Harriet the Spy in a number of years, but your article has me reaching for my copy. Thanks so much for the inside story about the writing of the book. Interesting.

  4. McCourt says:

    I loved this book as a kid. My copy was well-worn after being read so many times. I assumed my daughters would enjoy it as well, but so far my older two thought Harriet was too mean. I was surprised – I guess Harriet isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. My third daughter is up to read it next so I am hoping she enjoys it. I always wished for a dumbwaiter after reading this book – it sounded so cool.

  5. Anita says:

    Barb: As you can see from my essay, that parent is just reproducing the controversy that has always plagued Harriet the Spy.

  6. Deb Day says:

    How funny that you are talking about Harriet today. Yesterday, for the National Day of Writing, my blog post was about why I write. I blogged that I wrote because I always wanted to be Harriet! I didn’t have a spy club, but I definitely became a notebook keeper!

  7. Jennifer says:

    I always loved Harriet! I carried a notebook for years because of her.

  8. sharon says:

    After I’ve read a book, the thing that lasts for me is how I felt when I read it. I read Harriet the Spy and I cried. I cried because of Harriet’s meanness and why she was mean. Here’s why that 5th grade class should read Harriet the Spy, after having it read it, you’ll understand that people aren’t always mean for the sake of being mean but because they have other things going on in their life.

    Harriet the Spy made me a better person.

  9. My childhood was finished before Harriet appeared but we did play spy games that we made up ourselves & were more fun than birthday party games. When I did read Harriet I wanted to regress & do it all over again! It was good training for a writer.

  10. Lisa B.Harvey says:

    This was a favorite book of mine when I was ten years old. I and a best friend, Peter, both had “notebooks” which we took very seriously. We were eventually asked to cease our “spying” when one of our teachers discovered our habit! I even had my “outift” that I wore after school in our neighborhood! (girls couldn’t wear pants to school then).

    It was a fabulous learning experience as a child. My Mother was smart, she let me roam about the neighborhood with notebook in hand until I naturally became tired of “spying” on my own (which consisted of sitting under trees watching people come & go!).

    And as life is indeed a full circle, just this week I decided (great timing with Anita’s posting!) to “be” Harriet for my after school Halloween party. I will proudly hold my original copy of this great book in hand to inspire a new generation to read it!

  11. Anita says:

    Thanks, everyone, for sharing these wonderful stories about reading Harriet as a child. I love Sharon’s line “Harriet the Spy made me a better person.” Anita

  12. Walter M. Mayes says:

    It is the book I offer my students when they corner me with their insistence that I name my “favorite” book–I don’t deal in singularities often, but no single book has affected me, the industry, and the lives of the children I serve more than this one. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Skellig, and Watchmen, I regularly reread this treasure and find myself confirmed, confounded, and changed by it each time!

  13. Kathy Quimby says:

    Harriet the Spy was my favorite book from the moment I discovered it at the library. I read it so many times that I know I am responsible for the worn state it was in when I rediscovered that very same copy while visiting the very same library a decade ago. I’m not sure Harriet made me a better person, but she did help me feel less lonely, because someone knew how I felt–even though my parents were far from feckless. The details I remember best are the hot baths and the tomato sandwiches. To this day, I think of Harriet when I make the first tomato sandwich of the summer.

  14. Anita says:

    Walter: I loved reading your list of four books — and was thrilled to see Skellig there. I have thought myself a bit alone in my support of this amazing book. Glad to know I have company there!

  15. Maura says:

    I still remember coming home from a stint at summer camp as a ten year old and finding a brand new copy of Harriet the Spy on my bedspread. It may have been a ploy to distract me from the new paint and drapes that had also appeared, and if so, it worked. I would have finished it in one sitting except that I got dragged away for dinner. What a great read!!!!

  16. Cheryl says:

    “Sometimes you have to lie” is one of those great Truths of Adulthood that adults don’t like to admit, and part of the wonderful amazingness and bravery of this book is that it tells the secret right out, and that so empowers Harriet.

    It also contains one of my all-time favorite quotes about love, in Harriet reflecting on Old Golly’s engagement:

    “There is more to this thing of love than meets the eye. I am going to have to think about this a great deal but I don’t think it will get me anywhere. I think maybe they’re all right when they say there are some things I won’t know anything about until I’m older. But if it makes you like to eat all kinds of wurst I’m not sure I’m going to like this. “

  17. Amy says:

    Anita, I’m old enough to remember the controversy when “Harriet” was published. I loved it then and love it now. When I teach it is a “must read” for my students. It did change fiction for children.

  18. Anita says:

    Amy: It is true you are old enough to remember this controversy — and I am grateful that you are here on the site to comment on it! Anita

  19. Bookjeannie says:

    Anita & Walter…another book that I’ve not read yet. How did I miss it? Mockingbird is my favorite book of all time and Skellig is one of those books that when you see its title, you remember exactly how it made you feel. I just went to Almond’s website and he has written a prequel to Skellig, MY NAME IS MINA. Woot!

  20. In another one of Life’s coincidences, earlier this week I happened to recommend Harriet to a fellow writer who needed some direction. And now her name is in front of me again. I wonder if there’s a message there for me.

  21. Sherry says:

    Anita; I hope this story is in your new book due out in a week. I always think of Harriet at the first sight of big summer tomatoes.

  22. There was a wonderful cemetery behind my childhood home/property. Huge boulders and many trees, perfect for spying behind, were in MY beloved cemetery. I spent many an afternoon spying on the custodian, taking notes, dashing from boulder to tree to boulder hoping I wouldn’t be seen or worse yet, CAUGHT. It was thrilling to live in such danger! A beautiful chapel with stained glass windows is where i would try and climb up (scale the walls without being seen) to look into the windows. Such adventure. Oh, and remember Jingle shorts? They were yesterdays cargo shorts designed for boy scouts most likely. Perfect for hanging all the tools of a spy from. Thanks Harriet. Thanks Anita for taking me back there.

  23. Anita says:

    Sherry: Yes, Harriet graces October 21 in the book, just as she does one line. I haven’t ever published a book about children’s books without Harriet!

  24. Susannah Borysthen-Tkacz says:

    Since immersing myself in my Harriet research, I have finding evidence everywhere of Fitzhugh’s influence on a new generation of writers: Melissa Moss’s “Amelia’s Notebook,” C.D. Payne’s “Youth in Revolt,” and–my personal recent favorite–“The Popularity Papers” by Amy Ignatow. Of course, none of them carry the shock factor that Harriet had in 1964, but these authors were so clearly Harriet fans as children!

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