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.