Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #165: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

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Violence against one’s children, I feel, is never the answer, but Harriet the Spy had me rethinking that stance. I don’t have it in me to wail on an adult, let alone a child; however, if I were to father a child like Harriet, I would consider putting her up for adoption because a) I couldn’t be trusted not to take the belt to her and b) I have clearly failed as a parent and so she’d be better served being raised by someone else more qualified. She makes that red-headed demon from the Problem Child movies seem like a parent’s dream (think Roald Dahl’s Matilda) by comparison.

Alright, I might be overstating my point a wee bit, but Harriet was the literary equivalent of that little girl who spent what must’ve been something like half of my nine hour shift the other day at Walmart letting loose uninterrupted ear-piercing screams that could be heard from one end of the store to the other. She is a hateful, spiteful hell spawn incapable of learning the error of her ways, largely due to having mostly absent parents who foist her off on a therapist the second things get out of hand.

Worse yet, she gets away with it, and is even, in a way, rewarded for it. She turns her entire class against her by being an equal-opportunity offender in her “spy notebook,” which is code for “where I belittle and insult every last person I come into contact with,” and her teacher’s solution is to give her run of the school paper, wherein she earns her redemption through doing precisely what got her into trouble in the first place! She gets back into good graces with her classmates because, instead of spewing hate directed at them, she’s now shifted her aim entirely to unsuspecting strangers that no one besides her knows anything about.

Did I mention her friends, who she completely betrayed, don’t even get a formal apology, yet forgive her anyway? Or that the only semi-present adult in her life, besides the fucking cook (yeah, she’s not just a brat, she’s a rich brat), Ole Golly, her one-time nanny, told her the way out of her predicament was to lie!? Oh, but not until she’d made clear that she didn’t miss Harriet. That sure cheered Harriet up. No, I’m being serious. So did becoming as hurtful with her actions as she’d been with her words. Let’s see, she tripped one kid, lopped a chunk of hair off another, threw a pencil at the head of yet another, and played cruel head games with another.

At the same time as she’s doing all this, the one thing she isn’t doing is her schoolwork, which goes completely neglected in favor of scribbling away in her notebook. Not to worry, though. You won’t ever get properly disciplined for any of this; the worst they’ll do is not allow you to have your notebook with you during school hours. So, really, what reason is she given to stop her petulant ways? None whatsoever, and this is the message Harriet the Spy is sending to little kids, that they can perpetually misbehave without any real repercussions?

No child of mine will ever be allowed to read such nonsense, nor will I hesitate to go all Harriet on Harriet the Spy anytime it’s mentioned in conversation, especially if someone speaks fondly of it. You don’t know how much willpower I’ve had to exercise to not angrily correct each and every positive review over on Goodreads, of which there are many. Maybe one out of every couple dozen reviews doesn’t speak of it in glowing terms, and that pains me. Literally, I think my hate for this book actually worked me up into this headache of mine. Normally I’m all for open discussion, but in this case I simply cannot, and will not, be so level-headed. I’d sooner let a young, impressionable mind read a book the likes of Darkly Dreaming Dexter than I would Harriet the Spy, because at least it has some sense of right and wrong. The only people I would recommend read it are adults who still harbor fond memories for it. I beg of you, read it again and see just how wrong you were.

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6 thoughts on “Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #165: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

  1. Granted, it’s been a long time since I’ve read this book, but we seem to have read it completely differently. Yes, Harriet is a spoiled entitled brat at the beginning of the story. That’s sort of the point of the book, for her to learn that that sort of behavior is not okay, and that your actions do have consequences.

    And just a little advice for you (which you can, of course, take or leave: restricting what your kids can read? Not a good idea. Most likely they’ll read it anyway and have no context for what you want them to get/not get out of it. I can’t tell you how many times I read things I wasn’t supposed to as a child. And honestly? Those things really didn’t have that big of an affect on me anyway. Your kids will learn by your example, regardless of what you ‘let’ them read.

    I feel like I might be poking an angry bear in writing this comment, but this review was so incredibly angry and sort of crapping all over something I loved as a child, that it was my natural knee-jerk response to say something.

  2. See, my contention is that she did not learn any such thing because all it took to set things right was switching the primary target of her “spy” diatribes from her classmates to strangers, and her friends being more far more forgiving than they rightly should’ve been after her outright betrayal. Making her editor of the school paper was supposed to set her right, to break her bad habits, yet in reality they just gave her center stage to spout off what, up until then, she’d kept to herself. And did anyone think to tell her writing such harsh and overly judgmental things like this about people behind their back is wrong? Nope. Ole Golly sort of hinted at it, but her advice was, of all things, to lie. Which is basically what Harriet ended up doing. There’s never a moment where she thinks to herself, “Hey, I was being too hard on them. And all that stuff they did to me, I sort of deserved.” Instead, she does a couple half-assed “good deeds” and all is forgiven. And her parents remain oblivious and disinterested in doing what it takes to insure their daughter grows to become an upstanding adult, AKA not foisting her off on therapists, nannies, cooks, etc. No one in the entire book learns a thing. There’s no lesson learned; they just return to the same blissful ignorance they enjoyed at the outset.

    And I’m familiar with how any sort of restriction just entices a kid more (it’s why I covertly watched Jackass and South Park, the only two shows I remember my mom ever banning me from watching); honestly, I’d be more likely to just do what I could to gently steer them away from it without going so far as to say “you are, under no circumstances, to read this.” In my review, I was just too caught up in the disbelieving rage the book inspired and failed to be quite as rational. I don’t often let myself get this antagonistic in my reviews, or in general, but Harriet the Spy was one of those rare books that shot right past “dislike” all the way to “unequivocal and unadulterated hatred.” It’s, at best, a dishonorable mention when it comes time to list the best and worst books we read during Cannonball 5. You Suck and Bite Me by Christopher Moore will be treated as one unit of awfulness, listed together as dual number ones, but Harriet the Spy will probably get that not so coveted number two slot on my list of the worst books I’ve read this year. I’ve read 160+ books this year, and I can count on one hand the number that’ve inspired hate on par with this and You Suck/Bite Me. I just honestly think it really was as bad as this review makes it out to be.

    • My memory of what I took away from the book (and the movie) doesn’t line up at all with that description. I’d have to re-read to back my arguments up, but when I was a young girl reading this, even though it was never explicitly stated, I always felt that there were a lot of implicit lessons to be found in the book. Actually, the fact that they weren’t stated outright was to it’s credit. I appreciated not being talked down to.

      I also think this book appeals to a certain kind of kid, the nosy ones, the proto-writers. I was definitely one of those.

      • In the movie, perhaps. I haven’t seen it in years, but I remember it not being quite as hate-filled. But, in the book, I literally saw no development whatsoever on the part of Harriet; maybe there were “implicit lessons” there, but if I, a grown adult, managed to pass over them completely, do you really think a kid’s going to notice and learn anything from them? And I know I’m not alone in feeling this way; of what few negative reviews there are to be found on Goodreads, all of them echo my sentiments exactly. So either we’re all missing something, or the book’s supporters are overstating just how much Harriet grows from her experiences.

  3. I just get the sense that you’re the exception. I’ve spent quite a while reading through the reviews over on Goodreads, and I’m not seeing very many who shares your more positive outlook on Harriet’s growth, or lack thereof. The common theme throughout all the reviews, negative AND positive, is that she’s a little pest. Just the supporters are in support of her being that way because it’s realistic, whereas the detractors feel the same way about it as I do. At least that’s the impression I’ve gotten from reading through at least couple dozen or so reviews.

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