Harriet the Spy

On January 7, 2008 by Eden M. Kennedy

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

I recently re-read this when I was visiting my mom’s house, and if you don’t know the book here’s a quick plot summary. Harriet is an eleven-year-old girl who lives in New York City with her father, a television executive, and her mother, who plays a lot of bridge. They have a cook, whom they all call “Cook,” and Harriet has an educated and strict but loving nurse with the peculiar name Ole Golly. Harriet is voraciously curious about other people’s lives and keeps a record of her observations in a series of notebooks because she wants to grow up to be a spy. But when her classmates discover that she’s been spying on them, she has to confront her circumstances with a new maturity and sensitivity.

I must have read this at least a dozen times when I was Harriet’s age, but revisiting it thirty-odd years later with my own experiences of Harriet’s city in my head gave a new richness to the book. Also, when I was a kid, the adults’ behavior in the book made NO sense to me; I used to think it was because the grownups in Harriet’s life were nothing like the ones in my own, but now I think it’s just because adults are just mysterious creatures operating on a whole different, sometimes fucked-up logic. Harriet’s friend Sport’s dad is a writer who works all night, thus requiring Sport to do all the housework, which he occasionally chooses to do wearing an apron. Her other friend, Janie, has a chemistry lab set up in her room, mystifying her mother, who calls her Dr. Caligari and throws up her hands in disgust whenever something explodes. All of their teachers are oddballs, impatient or scattered or dealing with the demise of their own dreams, all of which is sketched out quickly so as not to bore the young adult reader but with enough detail to provide a recognizable portrait for someone with more experience.

I don’t know. As far as book reports go, this post rates a B-. I guess my impressions of Harriet go too deeply to sum up in a couple of paragraphs, and I suspect it’s the same for many other people my age. I recall once an old boyfriend telling me that his mother made him wear purple socks so she could find him if he got lost in a crowd, and my friend was shocked when I told him that what he thought was a vivid personal memory was actually taken from this book (a character named The Boy With The Purple Socks, who was so boring, according to Harriet, that no one bothered to remember his name).

I remember that the sequel, The Long Secret, wherein Harriet goes on summer vacation, is even better.



22 Responses to “Harriet the Spy”


    I’m sorry to shout like that, but you just totally blew my mind. I have read that book about a thousand times and it never once occurred to me that there might be a sequel.

  • Um … I’m with you Annika – SEQUEL?
    Somebody in marketing let us down.

  • I had forgotten all about The Long Secret, but that was even better, you’re right. I believe there’s also a book specifically about Sport. I think it might actually be called Sport.

    I have great memories of these books too.

  • There is a book called Sport, but Fitzhugh died in the middle of writing it so it reads unfinished, unfortunately. I wish she’d lived long enough to finish it, what a fantastic trilogy.

    Everybody go read The Long Secret, it’s great!

  • And did you, like every other little girl who read that book, start a spy route and a spy journal? I did.

  • I cannot tell you how pleased I am to hear that some boy, somewhere, actually was dressed in purple socks so his mother could find him.

    I actually didn’t like Long Secret when I read it as a kid. Maybe I would if I read it now. I recently reread HtS, too, and had a very similar reaction to it. My childhood copy fell apart from being read to many times. When I saw it in a used bookstore I bought it for my daughter but took the opportunity to reread it myself first. I’m pleased to say she loved it every bit as much as I did, and went as far as to assemble spy gear. We had a long talk about what sort of things one can wisely write in a spy notebook, though. She had, amazingly enough, read the whole thing through without it dawning on her that all of Harriet’s troubles with her friends were partly Harriet’s own fault. DUH!

  • Harriet the Spy was the first novel I ever read. I loved it and I remember being overjoyed to find The Long Secret at a yard sale a few years later. I don’t have a strong memory of it, but your post has reminded me just how much I loved HTS. I’m going to go back and read them both!

  • This opened up a window to my childhood. Thanks for that!!!

  • I loved Harriet the Spy and I’m afraid to reread it now because I want to remember it just the way it was. But holy crap, there was a sequel? Library, here I come!

  • I have never read HtS! How can this be? I have always been an avid reader, much to the consternation of my family. When I was twelve, my mom asked me what I wanted for Christmas, when I replied the complete works of Shakespeare she said, “Well if you’re not going to be serious, I’m going to stop asking.” Thing is, I was serious!

    Looking forward to getting these books for my daughter, I’ll be sure to read them as well. Thanks for the book report.

  • I just read an adult mystery that was more than a little Harriet the Spy-esque. It’s called The Spellman Files and is written by Lisa Lutz. I really enjoyed it.

  • I will never forget the day I received HTS- my grandfather, a librarian, gave me a copy of it in a small, brown paper bag. This book sits on my shelf, and now that I think about it, my son is probably ready to read it.

    If I think back really hard, I recall reading The Long Secret, but don’t think I liked it. I’ll have to try it again.

  • I’m with Loonytick and nyjlm — I didn’t like The Long Secret either. I will have to reread it as a grownup and see what I think now. After Harriet the Spy of course. :)

  • both are some of my all-time favorite books. love, love, love them.

  • I wanted to be Harriet the Spy so badly, and started a notebook just like hers, spying around the neighborhood with it. But then my Dad found it. And laughed his heiny off. And then told me all about how hilarious it was. Except it was serious.

    I guess if I had listened to the message of the book I would have known better.

    And I really, really didn’t know there was a sequel. I will go to the library immediately.

    (I also saw Freddy and Fredericka in your Library Thing- one of the best books ever written, hooray!)

  • I think my flashlight lust, which persists to this day, must come from reading Harriet.

  • Harriet the Spy, The Long Secret, and Sport all rock – although I agree that Sport ends awfully abruptly.

    The Boy with the Purple Socks was named Peter. They finally asked him his name when they were all reading Harriet’s notebook aloud in Carl Schurz Park.

    (I didn’t just read books as a kid; I memorized them.)

  • I’m also one who’s excited to have a child old enough to share this book with.

    The Dr. Caligari bit is interesting, and new to me. In the classic film _The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari_ he’s a mad scientist, yes, but a psychologist, not a chemist. I’ll have to think about what Fitzhugh was doing with that when I reread it.

  • I absolutely loved Harriet the Spy. I WAS Harriet the Spy.

    I remember madly scanning the library in my gradeschool and being ecstatic if I found it on the shelf!

    I recently reread the book when I was considering giving it to a friend’s daughter. I totally didn’t remember any of the adults at all. Cook? Ole Golly? None of them. But boy, do I remember when her friends found her notebook!

  • Harriet the Spy is my absolute favorite book of all time. I am always surprised when people my age (F-ing OLD that is) haven’t read it. I carry the passage in which she puts on her spying sweatshirt and describes its smell in my head with me always. I’ve read a lot of shit, but that…after 37 of reading…is what has been the most permanent reading memento. Thanks for the post. I’d give it a higher grade.

  • iTunes has an audiobook version of HtS that’s pretty good…my six year old can’t read enough yet to read Harriet, but we’ve listened to it about a zillion times in the car this year, and he loves it…me, too.

  • I’d give that book report an A, but then I’m a fan of both Fussy and Harriet.