Pamela's Reviews > Harriet the Spy

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
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Oct 08, 12


Another delight in the series of beloved kids' books I have been rereading for a number of months now...

Here's a review of "Harriet The Spy" I posted recently elsewhere:

I've been thinking about "Harriet The Spy".

It's a book that I loved when I read it soon after it was first published. It received mixed reviews then, and from skimming reviews of it now, it continues to confound reviewers. I am struck, however, at how strenuous some of the objections are to it today, and wonder if the tone of those reviews reflects changes in middle-class attitudes toward children, and childhood.

We have today, I think, both a more realistic idea of the complexity of children and of childhood, and also a pressing felt sense that children are in dire need of overt instruction in morals--in being kind, good, altruistic, feeling, empathic, and so on and on.

Victorian-sounding? It is to me.

In everything from elementary curricula, to home schooling, to religious instruction, to workshops and programs on bullying and, yes, to kid's lit, there seems to be a groundswell of effort to mold young kids into being very good little people. This is happening, I think, because the world today is perceived by many as more dangerous (despite crime stats being down all over America), and because childhood is perceived as being more fraught with danger. We can thank the media for fostering much of this impression of our world.

The 'warm and cuddly' world of the 50's and early 60's while in actuality not warm and cuddly (recall the Korean War, race riots, nuclear testing, the space and arms race with the USSR, tolerance of bias toward women, and so on), but portrayed as so on TV, radio, and in movies, actually granted more license to kids to simply be kids. Kids worked hard in school, but had more time after to play, out of doors, with other children, unsupervised by adults. When kids behaved badly, and we did at times, adults, for the most part, did not even know of it. If they did, most would take steps to teach alternative ways to behave. But, there was little if any consulting with specialists, parenting books or magazines, and police or school official involvement was practically nil.

There was, simply, more freedom for most middle American kids, and, no, kids' behavior wasn't always nice, or kind, or harmless.

Contrast this to today's generation of young adults many of whom were raised so vigorously to 'be nice' and 'use their words' that some had to be taught to defend themselves when confronted with the inevitable nasty kid...!

Enter the novel "Harriet The Spy".

To my generation, the character Harriet was fun, feisty, opinionated, often a pain in the you-know-what, but very interesting, and very real. We could imagine meeting her, and could imagine being her. Can you possibly imagine any kid today having the freedom that Harriet enjoys--and in the city of New York? To run around every late afternoon and 'spy' on her neighbors?

Of course you can't; many kids today are not even being allowed to play in their own back yards without supervision. Many kids today don't even have time to play at all, supervised or not.

So for an earlier generation of readers, Harriet was a cranky, unsentimental, fun, eccentric, witty, smart-as-a-whip, female protagonist who ran about saying, or jotting down, what many of us were already thinking...And intrigued us in the process.

Today, she evidently annoys the heck out of a whole lot of younger parents who just don't get her, who don't want a protagonist for their kids who isn't always good or nice or mature, and who are baffled by the smart and hip tone of the book. (They can't relate to Central Park, Fifth Avenue Manhattanites; how in the world, they wonder, can their kids?)

So this--this difference in how kids are handled today, and how childhood is viewed--is, I think, part of the problem with bringing this book to a younger set of readers.

But also, I have the impression that many parents are reading this to kids who are too young for it. The novel is a children's novel, but it is too subtle and too sophisticated for most kids under ten, some might say under twelve. I read it at eleven, and loved it.

But that was back when the world of children, while more separate from the adult world of love, lust, dysfunction, and crime, was in its own way, messier, more private, more rough and tumble, and winner take all.

Harriet was a delight--a girl who could dish it out, take it, and come back swinging.

And all in a day's work!
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