"Harriet the Spy" Turns 50! Chatting With Editor Beverly Horowitz About Harriet, Feminism and Classic Books

There are things that you just read and it stays with you, and I think Harriet is just one of those kind of things.

Apr 9, 2014 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

Harriet the Spy” was one of the iconic books of my childhood, an item of news that should surprise absolutely no one. A little girl who wandered around unsupervised wearing jeans and noting everything down in a secret spy notebook? Please, it’s like this book was written specifically for me.

Shockingly, “Harriet” has just turned 50 -- kind of unbelievable, right? Like so many classic books, she’s withstood the test of time, and a special 50th Anniversary Edition complete with a map of Harriet’s spy route, essays by writers and a variety of publishing professionals, and, of course, the original text with illustrations, has just been released. I had a chance to talk with editor Beverly Horowitz about the special edition and Harriet’s enduring contribution to the lives of so many kids.

“I love her. I’ve always loved her, and it was a joy to do the 50th anniversary,” Horowitz explained as we shared our mutual passion for the book. “Louise Fitzhugh herself had no children, but was very connected to her childhood, and she captured so many universal things that helped the book stand the test of time.”

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“What was interesting as a person in the publishing world was when I asked these various people if they were willing to contribute, and I got such a variety of people willing to do it. Someone, I think Judy Blume said it, was that the honesty of Louise Fitzhugh encouraged her to write about her own childhood. So many different kinds of readers came to Harriet and found aspects of themselves. Now of course great books do that, but isn’t it great that books still do that 50 years later? That emotional core of being honest and using your own brain and connecting with people as the person you are [resonates with readers].”

One of the things that fascinates me about “Harriet the Spy” is that in many ways, Harriet is a strongly feminist character, and this was a sentiment echoed in many of the great essays included in the Anniversary Edition. Harriet was on the cutting edge of the strong female character revolution, and Beverly had lots to say about the feminist and cultural aspects of the book.

“Of course Harriet wears jeans and her toolbelt,” she said, describing Harriet’s defiant way of dressing. “Harriet is not dressed up, her parents can well afford gorgeous French dresses, or American dresses, or, you know, whatever. I see her as an early kid Coco Chanel, with the pantsuits, with a different kind of look. Harriet’s wearing her jeans. She’s comfortable, she’s happy, she doesn’t like fancy, she’s prepared for whatever comes her way -- and in fact, she’s out there looking for things. Instead of putting it all in her handbag, she’s got it all in her belt. And in a way, that’s very freeing for kids.”

“There’s a moment where Harriet goes to visit Sport, Sport answers the door, and I think he’s wearing an apron and holding a towel drying the dishes. So, 50 years ago, we have totally reversed roles here. Sport is drying the dishes, wearing the apron, having made a meal, and is cleaning up, because Sport has to take care of his dad, the creative person who’s in the next room.”

“He’s in his apron and his towel, he wants security, he wants all of these things in some ways, it hit me that at a certain point, it sounds like two older women having a conversation about their future...Part of what hit me was that role reversal of the boy and the girl, with the two of them standing there feeling sorry for each other because they’ve chosen different kinds of futures. The vision of a boy drying dishes in an apron was really remarkable for kids 50 years ago. It seemed really terrific to me that it was right there, the visual of how they stood and looked. And I just loved that.”

“Sport had to take on these nurturing roles because nobody was there for him. He took care of his dad. And that was another thing that was before its time, because so many kids today have parents who behave badly. I never see this acknowledged as another aspect of the forward thinking of Louise Fitzhugh.”

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Beverly pointed out that: “In so many ways, Louise Fitzhugh was before her time in so much of what she was able to show.”

“The other thing that was really interesting was the level of honesty that Harriet was able to demand, which she wanted. She wanted to know, she wanted to learn everything, she wanted people who were as honest as she. And at the same time, she had to learn about relationships -- and I don’t mean just about relationships like ‘a girl has to behave this way.’ It was obvious to me that somewhere in the underlying sensibility, there was no ‘a girl has to tell little lies because a girl has to behave a certain way,’ as was common in that time period. This was another aspect of the book that was before its time.”

“If you look at these ‘how a girl should behave’ books from around that time, they were a little scary. And there was nothing like that in this. I felt that what we get from ‘Harriet’ and Louise Fitzhugh are what you might call gender equal, gender free values to live by, really.”

We also talked about the perception that Harriet is a “mean girl” ahead of her time, and whether that was really a fair assessment, given that she was really just honest with people. “...when she in fact did things that hurt other people’s feelings, she did it to the girls and the boys. She didn’t do it as a mean girl. She was a little girl who was supposed to behave a certain way. If a guy was honest, would they have said ‘that’s a mean boy?’ I don’t think so!”

“Harriet the Spy” was also right on point with the socioeconomics of the time, and of today, for that matter. So many of Harriet’s experiences as a member of the upper classes ring true today, from her careless attitude about money to being effectively raised by a nanny.

“Harriet had a very busy working dad, and a mother who was able to live a life of ‘involved leisure.’ And they left her with a nanny, who was pretty much so much more aware of the kids’ lives than the parents. And the whole era of nannyhood has continued today. The socioeconomics of today also leave kids with nannies. The nannies are teaching kids things that they may not have garnered from their parents. It’s interesting for people who are watching the social dynamics of the years go by, to see that not that much has changed.”

“I am not doing a sociological exploration of ‘Harriet the Spy,’” Beverly was hasty to say, “but I’m thinking about some of these social issues. 50 years is not a sneeze. 50 years is a lot of time!” She’s dead-on, both with her analysis and with the note that surprisingly little has changed, in some ways, in 50 years.

In other ways, of course, the world of “Harriet the Spy” feels almost unreal. We both zeroed in on the fact that Harriet wanders around all over the place without supervision, and that her parents have no idea what she’s doing. Today, the physical freedom of children is much more limited, of course, but in a way, the internet is like Harriet’s spy route, presenting an entirely new uncharted territory.

In “Harriet,” Beverly explained, “Kids are able to go around, they go to school themselves, they walk alone in the neighborhood. They just hang out, they go to the park, nobody’s with them, not even the nanny! They come to her! It’s kind of interesting, this otherworldly freedom. It just seemed to me another kind of odd thing, relatively. We think we have a kind of control over kids today, we don’t let them out alone, somebody takes them to the park. ‘What?! You let your kid go where?!’ And you hear these horrible stories about kids who go three blocks and go missing.”

And, of course, you can’t talk about “Harriet the Spy” without acknowledging that it is a quintessential New York book. How did it manage to encapsulate so much of New York life, while still appealing to children from all places and all class backgrounds -- like me, a lower class kid growing up in rural Northern California?

Beverly has a theory: “She went on her little spy route, she was in a neighborhood. That’s what people didn’t know what they were relating to -- Yorkville, that was a little hub in a bigger city. New York became not this skyscraper, cold, how do you find your way around, it’s such a big city place, it became these little neighborhoods.”

“You couldn’t say it was small town, but it was a neighborhood. That’s why we put in her spy route. Her physical freedom was also her intellectual freedom,” Beverly noted. “And you know, for a lot of kids who maybe had no understanding that they could be free of their parents’ ideas, you know, what a joy! And I think that’s the other thing, kids are in so many ways a clean slate...Harriet started early intellectually, to be her own thinker and look around at the world and know as much as she could know.”

“We’re lucky, those of us who had Harriet at a certain point in our lives,” she concluded. “These books stand the time because of the dynamics of the character. A really strong character who manages to connect with the reader. In the end, it’s people to people relationships. It’s a tribute to the creative writing process. There are things that you just read and it stays with you, and I think Harriet is just one of those kind of things. She stays with you.”

Here’s to a new generation of “Harriet” readers young and old, and to 50 great more years of this iconic book.