Every kid needs to have role models. They show us what to do. Our parents are great but they’re grown-ups with lives we kids can’t fathom. The same thing goes for teachers. Kids our own age are too close and smaller kids look up to us. So, we look for role models among the kids a bit older and cooler than we are. We follow them around and copy their ways hoping some of their aura will rub off on us. Of course, my first role model came from a book. I’m sure my Mom would have preferred I pick a real person or at least a heroine she could understand, like Mary Lennox. Instead, I found a precocious, formidable loner and claimed her as my ideal. I didn’t know where my life was going until I met Harriet the Spy.
If your recollection of this eleven-year wonder is limited to the movies, you need to pick up the book. Harriet is nobody’s darling; she’s a curmudgeon with eyeglass frames and a notebook. To say she’s focused doesn’t begin to describe her; single-minded and blunt come closer. Harriet has a single ambition in life, to become a writer. She knows that writers record what they experience and, since she hasn’t had many experiences, Harriet observes other people and writes down what she sees, in brutally honest detail. Hence her title, Harriet the Spy.
You wouldn’t expect a kid like that to be Every Parent’s Dream or the Most Popular Girl in Class. She’s not. With her spy route and notebook, plus a couple of outsider friends, and her book quoting nanny, Ole Golly, Harriet doesn’t need to be a Popular Girl. To her, the world’s complete as it is. Unfortunately, no universe is static. Ole Golly leaves just as Harriet’s notebook is discovered and read by the rest of her class. Once they read what she really thinks of them (“Sport’s like an old woman”; “Carrie Andrews’ mom has the biggest front I ever saw.”) Harriet’s a target in the enemy camp.
Believe it or not, this brilliant book has been challenged due to Harriet’s personality. She’s an outsider, a loner, a hard-to-please-stick-in-the-mud. So what?!? The fact is, most kids feel like an outsider at some point in their lives. (Those who never did may leave the room.) Harriet speaks to that loneliness and tells kids they can survive the disasters and make up a fight with real friends, if they can apologize and give it time. That kind of knowledge is powerful medicine and a lot of kids need to have it.
Harriet the Spy also points out that the difficult kids also have feelings that can be hurt. Harriet may have the natural subtly of an ax but she’s not malevolent by nature. When her classmates turn on her, Harriet goes through hell. If there’s a central lesson to this wonderful book, it’s to have patience with outsiders and all those who need some extra lessons in tact.
There are very few books that satisfy the adult reader the way they did when the reader was a kid. Harriet does, at least I think so. Of course, she still is my Role Model.