Harriet Criticized

Rather like Harriet herself, Harriet the Spy did not make its observations about the world without evoking consternation and disapproval. Many early reviews were favourable. Gloria Vanderbilt (footnote), writing in the New York Times, gave the book a sweet review. Nordstrom later recalled, “George Woods of the Times hated it and wouldn’t let his children read it. But he gave it to an outside reviewer who raved about it and, to George’s credit, he published this favorable review” (Nordstrom, 386). Other early reviews were also positive, including one in the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books in December 1964.

The trouble began for Harriet in February 1965. Two major sources of information for librarians and educators simultaneously, apparently spontaneously, questioned the value of the book. Ruth Hill Viguers, writing in Horn Book, decried the positive press the book had received:

The arrival of Harriet the Spy with fanfare and announcements of approval for its “realism” makes me wonder again why that word is invariably applied to stories about disagreeable people and situations. Are there really no amiable children? No loyal friends? No parents who are fundamentally loving and understanding? I challenge the implication that New York City harbors only people who are abnormal, ill-adjusted and egocentric. (74)

The dig about “realism” may in fact have been aimed at Zena Sutherland, the reviewer in the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, who did not categorize the book as “realism” but did say its depiction “of the power structures of the sixth-grade class are realistic.” There is a world of difference between the aesthetic category “realism” and describing some of a work’s features as “realistic,” and Viguers apparent conflation of the two has contributed to an ongoing confusion about how to understand Fitzhugh’s genre. Viguers went on to say:

Many adult readers appreciating the sophistication of the book will find it funny and penetrating. Children, however, do not enjoy cynicism. I doubt its appeal to many of them. This is a very jaded view on which to open children’s windows. (74)

At the same time, Library Journal published a letter (cited in Nordstrom, p. 188) from a group of Miami librarians saying that they found the character of Harriet “completely unchildlike” and “more suitable for a New Yorker piece than a children’s book.”

The following year, a University of Chicago conference on children’s literature included a paper which questioned psychological value to children of the resolution, that is, that Harriet continues to spy (quoted in Children’s Literature Review, p. 71). These conflicting messages emanating from the very centre of the children’s book market surely sent a chill through the team at Harper’s. Nordstrom also received negative reactions from some of her other authors. Writing to Edgar and Annabel Johnson (a married writing team) she said:

I still wonder what put you off so about Harriet the Spy. Was it the fact that she spied that disturbed you? I think most of us have forgotten the awful things we did or wanted to do when we were 10 or 11 or 12. I was brought up with the most stern drilling of what was right and wrong, kind of mean, thoughtful or inconsiderate, etc. etc., and never tell a lie no matter what. And to this day I would love to read other people’s mail and listen to their telephone conversations if it were not for this hideous conscience, well–mustn’t get into one of those long wandering letters. But you are all for vigor in children’s books and Harriet seems to have such vigor and life.   ????? (229)

Nordstrom, groping to understand the negative reactions of people she clearly admired, articulated several of the common complaints. As one scholar recently put it:

After the dust settled, three main criticisms emerged: the characters were too unpleasant, children might imitate Harriet’s spying, and Ole Golly’s final advice was immoral. Many libraries established special committees to decide whether the book deserved space on the shelves. (Bernstein, part 1)

Complaints about the book were likely heard from time time, although the American Library Association knows of only one formal challenge, in Xenia, Ohio in 1983. The complaint stated that the book “teaches children to lie, spy, back-talk, and curse.” In 1993 the Dayton Daily News described that challenge as among the earliest sallies in a decade-long campaign against the Xenia school board by a conservative Christian group called Citizens for Excellence in Education. The board apparently resisted the demand to remove the book from schools.

Thus, there is little indication that any of these complaints succeeded in keeping the book out of the hands of children. There is also no evidence that the controversy helped sales, as can sometimes happen. Instead, it appears that the book itself carried the day. Children read it in large numbers, and it is available in most public libraries. It has become established as a children’s classic. More than 45 years after its publication, it is ranked #4,189 on Amazon.com. The controversy, then, perhaps had more to do with the field of children’s literature coming to terms with its own development than it did with Harriet.

Sources:

Nordstrom, Ursula. Dear Genius: the Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. Collected and edited by Leonard S. Marcus. (New York: HarperCollins, 1998).

Vanderbilt, Gloria. Review of Harriet the Spy. New York Times, Nov. 22, 1964: BR48.

Viguers, Ruth Hill. “On Spies and Applesauce and Such.” Horn Book February 1965: 74-76.

Sutherland, Zena. Review of Harriet the Spy. Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. December 1964: 53.

“Fitzhugh, Louise.” Children’s Literature Review vol. 1 (1976): 71-73.

Bernstein, Robin. ” ‘Too Realistic’ and ‘Too Distorted’: The Attack on Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy and the Gaze of the Queer Child.” Critical Matrix 12(1-2) (Fall 2000): 26ff. Reproduced in Contemporary Women’s Issues (Gale) in 4 parts.

American Library Association, Office for Intellectual Freedom. Email message to Faith Jones, Nov. 22, 2010.

Denger, Laurie. “Issues in Xenia schools boiling for a decade.” Dayton Daily News [City edition] October 25, 1993: 6A.

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