In the last couple of years we've seen some of our favorite children's books--Where the Wild Things Are, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Giving Tree, Amelia Bedelia--celebrate their 50th anniversaries. Now it's Louise Fitzhugh's beloved story of the intensely curious aspiring young writer, Harriet M. Welsch--a.k.a Harriet the Spy, marking the half-century milestone.
Half a century sounds so, well, old, doesn't it? Michael D. Beil, author of the Red Blazer Girls series and the upcoming Lantern Sam and the Blue Streak Bandits (April 8), thinks old, in this case, translates to the wonder of pre-Google discovery and characters that are still believable five decades after they first appeared on the page.
In his funny and delightful guest post below, Beil joins the ranks of Judy Blume, Lois Lowry, and Jonathan Franzen, among others, in paying tribute to this iconic children's book that so many of us hold close to our hearts. Here's to another 50 years of inspiring young readers, Harriet.
Harriet the Spy at 50
My wife and I recently started an Old Fogey Jar. Whenever one of us says something that sounds suspiciously old-fogey-like, a dollar goes in the jar. Fogey talk is easy to identify because it usually begins with a recognizable phrase. For example:
Kids today . . .
When I was a kid . . .
We didn’t have X and we all survived. (X equals Bike helmets. Car seats. IEPs. The list goes on.)
They don’t make ’em like they used to.
And, of course, that all-purpose favorite: The world is going to hell in a handbasket.
At the risk of losing yet another dollar to the jar (which I am filling at an alarming rate, I’m afraid), I’m going to say it: far too many of today’s kids are miles behind Harriet M. Welsch in one essential category: simple curiosity. Unlike in Harriet’s pre-Google, pre-Ask.com world, the answers kids seek are often just a click or two away. The concept of learning something they don’t need to learn, of simply sitting on a library floor surrounded by books, is foreign to them. It’s not the ease of finding the answer that’s the problem; rather, it’s the loss of those random and accidental discoveries kids make when they’re looking for something else.
Of course, they don’t all have an Ole Golly, who may just be the wisest human being in the history of literature. She reads Dostoievsky before bed; quotes Wordsworth, Emerson, and Keats; and urges Harriet to “find out all you can, because life is hard enough even if you know a lot.” Ole Golly was a life coach before people even knew that they needed such a thing. (There goes another dollar.)
Harriet is not only interesting; she is interestED, in everything and everyone. Like Jane Goodall living with the chimpanzees in Tanzania, Harriet realizes that the only way to truly understand the inhabitants of her Yorkville neighborhood is by observing them in their natural habitat—in other words, by spying on them. And like a portrait by an artist who paints exactly what she sees, completely disregarding how subjects see themselves, Harriet’s notes are honest, unvarnished, and often unflattering depictions. And does she take her job seriously! When her mother restricts the amount of time she can “play” with her notebook, she says, “I’m not playing. Who says I’m playing? I’m WORKING!” Harriet may not be entirely likeable, but fifty years’ worth of readers have admired her, and aspiring writers continue to be inspired by her imagination, intelligence, curiosity, and single-minded determination to be a writer.
She’s also believable, which is why kids (who couldn’t care less what critics think!) like her. I’m not usually a black-and-white kind of guy, but when it comes to adults, I think there are two basic types: those who remember what it was like to be a kid, and those who don’t. At the school where I teach, I have colleagues in both camps, and to be honest, I don’t know which type makes better teachers. When it comes to writing for children, however, it’s no contest. The ability to recall childhood memories and emotions, to channel one’s inner child, is critical to the creation of realistic, believable characters. Obviously, Louise Fitzhugh had that ability in spades. As for the rest of us, we just have to silence our inner fogey and keep trying until we get it right. ---Michael D. Beil