I remember there was a period of time – around 1970?? – all the girls were reading Harriet the Spy – I can’t remember if the librarian read some of it to us… it wasn’t BIG like Harry Potter or anything, but it was one of those books that all the girls at least “knew about”.
I wasn’t a big reader as a kid, but I really liked the illustrations in HTS, and illustrations were always important to me. I loved the way Harriet looked.
What was so important to me was my identification with Harriet.
So much of the time, I indentified with male characters – both in books and on TV. I wasn’t confused about my gender, but I just didn’t “get” female characters – they were not a reflection of who I felt I was. They didn’t look like me, they didn’t dress like me, and they certainly didn’t act like me.
I can remember vividly, looking at pictures of Pipi Longstockings, who I adored and admired, and trying to figure out how I could “look like” her – while at the same time, knowing it was hopeless.
Harriet was different – although her life circumstances weren’t like mine, she was like me – it was really kind of amazing. I could absolutely identify with her character, her interests, her concerns, her inner dialogue, her desires… she was very real to me, I loved her, and I wanted to be like her.
HTS reflected contemporary, urban life. The kids in the book (especially Harriet) were deep, thoughtful, and very independant. What was really fabulous was that Harriet created her own adventures right where she lived – in her own city and neighbourhood, out of the stuff of her own life. She didn’t have to go “someplace else” – either magically or geographic – to have an amazing time; she used her own skills and initiative and observation and imagination to have it right where she lived.
The book made us believe that we could do exactly the same thing, /wherever/ we were. We didn’t have to be in New York with Harriet – that was never the point of the book. The point was that wherever you are, it’s exciting.
The book also was very powerful in that it gave kids – girls especially – an example of “safe” disobedience – Harriet was kind and decent, but she intentionally and knowingly did things she wasn’t supposed to do.
After reading HTS I started keeping a secret notebook, but obnoxiously made sure it was an open secret. I was the only kid to do so in grade 6 (we weren’t a terribly literate bunch) and it was a Bad Idea. Now I just blenderize all my accurately mean (or meanly accurate?) social observations into fiction.
I loved reading Harriet the Spy and sequels when I was little. I don’t remember ever _playing_ Harriet the Spy (keeping notebooks, sneaking around, or choosing favorite characters to “be” with friends, etc.) BUT my younger brother did. He kept spy notebooks when he was in second grade; he says he never did rounds, but he listened in on conversations and wrote things down. (At some point when he was in third grade he read my diary and got in BIG trouble for it, but I’m not sure that that was Harriet-related.)
I’ve read elsewhere of women my age who were inspired to keep notebooks and start their own spy routes, eat tomato sandwiches and leave anonymous notes after reading Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret. At eleven I didn’t particularly like tomatoes, didn’t have the patience to write, and already had a spy route, so I wasn’t inspired to start any of those things. What Harriet did inspire me to do was to experiment with crossdressing. I used whatever money I earned doing odd jobs to buy boys’ clothes on the sly and then went into other neighborhoods to play at passing as a boy. When an old man in a grocery store called me “Sonny,” I knew I had passed some sort of test. It was remarkably easy to to do, and it was as deliciously thrilling as sneaking into Agatha K. Plumber’s dumbwaiter. Over the course of a year, I developed quite an extensive wardrobe of boys’ clothes which I kept hidden at the back of my closet when I wasn’t using it as my own version of a spy uniform.
Read the whole story here.
I was a huge nerdy reader as a kid (surprise!) and when some of the kids at school got excited about Harriet it felt pretty cool at first to see them also getting enthusiastic about a book I really liked. But it all turned quite negative — girls got notebooks and wrote down nasty things about each other, then passed them around. It was an ugly shock to me, that something as rich and nuanced as this book could inspire some people to just act worse than they usually did. I don’t think this whole trend at my school lasted long, but it took a lot of the joy out of the book for me.
I have abeautiful 5 year old daughter who has adored Harriet since she first saw it one year ago. She plunks away on the old typewrter, writes notes and stories in all of her many journals, and today we did a photo essay on our 6 mile hike…Harriet has become our household hero…along with Velma, Scooby and the Gang of course!