Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Genre: middle grade general fiction
Format read: ebook
Content warning: bullying
Rep: Autistic coding
Rating: planchet-4

This was one of the formative books of my youth, and I recently decided to revisit it.

Originally published in 1964, it has aged remarkably well considering it doesn’t include cell phones. I can just imagine how much havoc Harriet would wreak if she had access to an iPhone and a laptop.

If you happened to miss this book growing up, let me give you the basics: Harriet is the eleven-year-old daughter of wealthy parents in New York City. Her parents are usually absent, either working or attending parties, leaving Harriet in the care of her nanny, Golly.

And this is where the autistic coding comes in: Harriet does not understand people, especially adults. So she watches them. Obsessively. She has a regular after school route she follows every day, watching the people in her neighborhood. She follows the same path, eats the same foods, and wears the same clothes every day. She knows she isn’t like other kids, but she doesn’t mind–she thinks other kids are pretty dumb, anyway, because they don’t see things the way she does.

She writes down everything she sees in a notebook. This notebook is meant for no one’s eyes except her own. No one else reads it–not her family, not Golly, not even her best friends.

But when one of her classmates gets their hands on it and reads it aloud to the entire sixth grade, Harriet learns just how unwelcome her observations and opinions can be. Suddenly ostracized in the classroom and on the playground, Harriet is at first not bothered by this.

When Golly gets fired, however, things go south quickly. With her world crumbling around her, Harriet can’t muster the will to get out of bed. The classroom has become an unsafe place, where her food is stolen, her work destroyed, and ink poured all over her.

This book moved me to tears in places, even so many years later. It’s obvious now that the poor kid just wanted a voice, but couldn’t find anyone to listen except Golly. When that was taken away, she cracked.

I related to her in so many ways in 5th and 6th grade. I wanted to be a reporter at the time and took to carrying a notebook with me everywhere, just like Harriet. I didn’t understand why everyone hated her so much. Now, I do understand. But that doesn’t mean I think Harriet was wrong.

It would take me an entire website to unpack my feelings about this book. Back in elementary school, I didn’t know it was part of a series. Now that I know this is just one book of several, I’ll definitely be picking up the rest soon.

The only reason I didn’t rank this book 5 stars was because of a few bits that did not age well. For starters, every time some is angry or mean (even if this is justifiable rage), they are referred to as “gestapo” or “Nazi”-like. Considering the general lack of representation in this book, that made me really uncomfortable. There are no characters identified as being POC, or of other religions. The only immigrants in the entire book are an Italian family on Harriet’s spy route. I’m not even sure how you can have a book that white in 1960s New York.

So, if you’re feeling nostalgic, or just looking for a quick read, I would give this one a go.