Oh, Harriet the Spy, how I love you. I loved you when I was 10, and I love you now, still all these years later.
The first week of Girl Detective's Summer of Shelf Discovery project has us looking at YA heroines we love. Lizzie Skurnick describes it this way in Shelf Discovery:
"And they challenge us, like the best of friends, in general--not only to be ourselves, but to be more interesting, inspired versions of ourselves, girls unafraid to squeeze toothpaste, sleep on a Louis XIV bed or keep important tabs on all the neighbors, even if they're not afraid they're Hitler."
That's Harriet M. Welsch in a nutshell. She's a stubborn kid who knows what she wants (and in one memorable scene, what she doesn't want, as she tells her parents: "I'll be DAMNED if I'm going to dance school!") She wants to be a writer, and a writer has to know everything, so Harriet spies on people (even climbing into a neighbor's old dumbwaiter). She writes what she sees, what she thinks, what she feels. Harriet's no idealist--a lot of what she writes isn't particularly kind. But it's not meant for public consumption.
But of course it eventually becomes public consumption, and Harriet ends up learning far more about people than her regular spy route could ever teach her. And she learns a great deal about herself and what she's capable of.
There are plenty of negative reviews on Amazon from people who think she's a spoiled brat, but I think they're missing Harriet's essence. It's clear her family is well-to-do and she lives a very comfortable life, but she's a bright, curious kid. She's not malicious, but simply working hard at being honest and seeing things as they are. (I also got a chuckle out of one reviewer on Amazon who was outraged that the parents of the other kids didn't get involved--I take it that reviewer didn't bother to check when this book was published: 1964. That was a time of "kids will be kids".)
Returning to Harriet the Spy, I found it to be a more complex story than I ever understood in the past. That's probably one of the reasons it's so enduring--that, and the kids in the book are far from idealized. At times it's laugh-out-loud funny. But author Fitzhugh knows Harriet, and when Harriet is forbidden to take her notebook to school anymore and must wait all day to get it back, we share the relief:
"She grabbed up the pen and felt the mercy of her thoughts coming quickly, zooming through her head out the pen onto the paper. What a relief, she thought to herself; for a moment I thought I had dried up. She wrote a lot about what she felt, relishing the joy of her fingers gliding across the page, the sheer relief of communication."
My plan for the Shelf Discovery project is not only to revisit some of my childhood favorites, but to finally get around to reading some that I missed the first time around. In the same chapter on memorable heroines was Meg from Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. It's such a lauded, well-loved book, and I've never read it--sad. So it was logical to read that one.
Even sadder, it just didn't click with me. I'm thinking it's partly because it's fantasy, and that was not something I read as a kid (supernatural, yes--bring on the ghosts and ESP and things that go bump in the night), nor do I read much of it as an adult (Harry Potter being the rare exception).
But also, and maybe I was just in the wrong mood after reading Harriet, Wrinkle had parts that felt precious to me. Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit--meh. But then I got to the part where they start naming all the great fighters of the universe (Jesus, da Vinci, Shakespeare, Buddha, Beethoven, etc.), and I had a very Harriet-esque moment where I thought, "I'll be DAMNED if I'm going to finish this book!"
And that was the end of A Wrinkle in Time for me. Sorry, Wrinkle lovers. I know you are legion.