Old Friends

60 Years Ago, One Perfect Kids’ Book Solved The Mystery Of Growing Up

Harriet the Spy is immortal for a reason.

Detail of original cover of Harriet the Spy
Louise Fitzhugh/ Harper & Row
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Everyone enjoys a good detective story, including kids. And, sixty years after it was published in 1964, Harriet the Spy remains a perfect detective story for kids because it helps them solve the biggest mystery in their lives — growing up. This book demonstrated that kids are resilient enough to survive all sorts of hardships. Since its original publication, Harriet the Spy has enjoyed screen adaptations starting in 1996 with a film starring Michelle Trachtenberg and Rosie O’Donnell, a TV movie with Jennifer Stone in 2010, and an animated series on Apple TV+ in 2021 led by Beanie Feldstein. All of these have their charms. But none can match the original book. There’s a reason this book is immortal and much of that comes down to how Harriet broke the mold of what a main character should be like in children’s literature.

What’s Harriet the Spy About?

11-year-old Harriet lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the single child of the well-to-do white-collar Welsch family whose parents she rarely sees due to their work and never-ending social functions. She’s cared for by her nurse/ nanny Ole Golly; a quick-witted literata deeply admired by her ward who trusts her insightful caretaker more than her parents.

Harriet enters sixth grade in her private school joined by her best friends: Sport, a young boy who takes care of his aspiring writer father, and Janie, who loves chemistry and “planned one day to blow up the world.” After school, Harriet disguises herself to secretly visit unwitting nearby residents, documenting and opining on their activities. She considers herself a spy, but she’s not like James Bond. Her mission is to observe and record the actions of her neighbors and fellow students in her green composition notebook, the fifteenth she’s owned since she began writing at eight. According to Harriet’s nanny, Ole Golly, if she wants to be a professional writer when she grows up, she better write down everything she sees. This is why she says of herself: “I”m a spy that writes down everything.”

One day, her world is turned upside down, as Ole Golly abruptly quits the Welsch family to start a new life with her fiancée in Montreal, urging Harriet not to cry since she’s old enough to take care of herself, whether she realizes it or not. Forced to adjust to this abrupt change, Harriet’s situation escalates when her classmates discover her spy notes. Ostracized and harassed by the people she once called her friends, and on the verge of emotional breakdowns she doesn’t understand, Harriet must grow up and set things right by transforming from a spy into a young adult.

Page from Harriet the Spy

Louise Fitzhugh/ Harper & Row

Who Wrote Harriet the Spy?

The story of Harriet the Spy shares a few autobiographical similarities with its author, Louise Fitzhugh. Born to a wealthy family in 1928 (like the protagonist in her most famous piece of fiction decades later), the Tennessee-born writer uncovered the hidden truth about her absent mother as a teen through her own detective work after her parent’s nasty divorce when she was a small child.

Children’s books weren’t necessarily the plan for Fitzhugh, who dropped out of New York’s Bard College after receiving an inheritance from her aristocratic grandmother. Moving into Greenwich Village, she pursued painting while expanding her mind among other artsy socialites of the 1950s. She hoped to use her drawing skills to bolster her income, illustrating a parody of Kay Thompson’s Eloise starring a beatnik toddler named Suzuki Beane as her first attempt in the world of books in 1961. This book is practically forgotten today, but the success of Suzuki Beane opened the doors of publisher Harper & Row, and three years later in October 1964, Harriet the Spy landed on bookstore shelves. While it sold over two million copies in its first five years, the book wasn’t without criticism or controversy.

Spies Like Us

Harriet M. Welsch wasn’t your typical leading character in children’s literature during the 1960s, and many parents weren’t thrilled at the example she was setting for their kids. Many disliked her sneakiness, creeping through back alleys and dumbwaiters to listen to oblivious New Yorkers like a voyeur. She was brash, anti-authoritarian, and confrontational - all on par for a moody pre-teen whose body was holding back the dam of hormones about to be released in the coming years.

There was no denying Harriet wasn’t like other 1960s kids' book heroes. She was complex and real during a time when kids' books were wary of showing that truth. Harriet the Spy was undeniably subversive for its era, featuring a tomboy who wasn’t solving mysteries like Nancy Drew, but living in an adolescent fantasy that collided with everyday life. Much like Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw which came out 19 years later, Harriet was confronted with dramatic shifts in her personal life that disrupted all aspects of her circumstances. Those routines she clung to throughout the text were now a link to the past as she begins to unknowingly step out of childhood and become a young adult.

Just as Harriet struggles with these issues, her parents are at a loss on how to deal with the outbursts from their daughter. The girl who once loved signing her name in big cursive letters atop every page of paper at school suddenly found less joy in that act as her world crumbled. It’s impossible not to feel empathetic at the unsavory position she finds herself in, even if part of it was her own doing. Growing up means learning your words and actions have consequences, and this was a harsh lesson for parents who purchased Harriet the Spy expecting it to be a simple Encyclopedia Brown romp.

To Thine Own Self Be True

While Harriet is smitten with a boy named Sport throughout the book, in real life, Fitzhugh was a lesbian who incorporates breadcrumbs of her sexual identity into her famous fictional protagonist. Harriet became an icon to children who yearned to be seen, a revolutionary concept for 1960s children’s lit that is often overlooked.

Having Harriet stand in as Fitzhugh’s avatar would have ensured her book never saw the light of day anywhere, but the message is quietly scattered across the pages if you know where to find them. From the shapeless dark blue hoodie, “ancient pair of blue jeans,” and hulking utility belt, paired with her “tomboy” appearance, Harriet didn’t look like your average girl in curled ribbons that kids' books showcased in the Baby-boomer generation. Janie’s mom tells her daughter and Harriet they “have to find out they’re girls” by doing more feminine things like dance lessons. One could attribute these elements to kids being kids, but it touches on societal norms thrust upon children to play the parts they are expected to play.

Harriet spies for the sake of observing and understanding how people act, but it goes beyond impersonation. There’s certainly a message about blending in, but it’s really about hiding in plain sight, which would have been how the typical LGBTQ person would have been forced to live in the 50s and 60s – and how queer characters would have to be sly in literature and media to exist without rocking the boat. When Harriet refuses to take dance lessons because it would do nothing to help her become a spy, Golly changes her mind by telling her it’s the perfect front a “girl spy” must undertake: “You have to look like everyone else, then you’ll get by and no one will suspect you.” As Harriet learns, sometimes little lies are what you need to be true to yourself.

Harriet jots down observations in her spy notebook

Louise Fitzhugh/ Harper & Row

It wasn’t only sexuality that Fitzhugh was highlighting, but self-identity and being comfortable in your own skin - no matter what society tells you. Ole Golly’s fiancée, Mr. Waldenstein, explains how he found himself not through riches from being a successful jeweler, but by finding a deeper purpose for being himself and getting what he wanted from the simpler things in life. Quoting Shakespeare to Harriet, Golly summarizes the core of the story at the end of the fifth chapter: “To thine own self be true.” Even after the emotional ordeal that she endures by book’s end, Harriet never loses sight of herself and finds a way to repair the hurt she caused in her own unique way, closing her notebook to end this chapter of her life before starting a brand-new story.

Harriet never stopped growing up, and neither did Fitzhugh's evolution as a writer. The author wrote a direct sequel titled The Long Secret and a spin-off centered on Sport’s family. A third Harriet book was intended to be written about interracial romance, but the idea was used in a different work, Nobody’s Family Is Going To Change. Two additional books were released posthumously by different authors, but readers continue to go back to the originals more than any of the follow-ups.

The sequels from Harriet’s expanded universe never caught fire the same way Harriet the Spy did, but Fitzhugh’s unapologetic philosophy of trusting in yourself remained steadfast. She urged children to find out who they are, embrace the things that make them uncomfortable, and accept “life is very strange” but if you know your value, it never has to be dust.