Friday, December 5, 2008

Book Review: Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh

     "I want to know everything, everything," screeched Harriet suddenly, lying back and bouncing up and down on the bed. "Everything in the world, everything, everything. I will be a spy and know everything."
     "It won't do you a bit of good to know everything if you don't do anything with it. Now get up, Miss Harriet the Spy, you're going to sleep now." And with that Ole Golly marched over and grabbed Harriet by the ear.

Harriet M. Welsch is a sixth grader with a purpose: she wants to be a spy when she grows up. To get ready, she keeps a notebook filled with observations about everyone and everything she sees. She even has a regular route around the neighborhood where she does her spy work, and she jots everything down in her ever-present notebook - including her opinions on each matter or person. 

She even writes about her friends, and what she writes about them is sometimes not so nice, even if it is true. But one day, Harriet's notebook is lost. When it turns up, it's in the hands of the very friends she's been spying on and writing about. And then, Harriet finds out more than she cares to know about spying, and writing, and friendship - and the consequences of being brutally honest.

For Teachers and Librarians:
Though Harriet the Spy was originally published in 1964, its themes of friendship, family relationships, and honesty are still as relevant today as they were back then. Harriet is not a perfect kid. She throws tantrums. She spies on people. She writes sometimes mean things about them. But the things she writes are in the spirit of being honest, even if they are things she would never say out loud. When her spy notebook turns up in the hands of the very friends she writes about, she learns some hard lessons about the conflicting ideas of maintaining professional honesty vs. the sometime need to fudge the truth a bit in the interests of maintaining important relationships.

Today's kids go through the same quandries - they just come about through different sets of circumstances. Let your students compare Harriet's situations to some they've found themselves in. Did they handle their situations the same as Harriet, or differently? Would they change how they did it after reading this book? How do they feel about Ole Golly's admonition, once Harriet's notebook has been read and her friends began to retaliate, that "1. You have to apologize. 2. You have to lie. Otherwise you are going to lose a friend." Let them discuss what they think that means. Have them compare and contrast "white lies" meant to shield a friend from unpleasantness, and other lies which could be hurtful or dangerous.

There is a lot going on in this book: friendship, family relationships, being a kid, dealing with school "stuff," having a loved one move away, unconventional childhoods. Whatever theme you choose to focus on, you can be sure your students will have much to identify with.

For Parents, Grandparents and Caregivers:
Kids today deal with much the same issues that Harriet deals with in Harriet the Spy. They just go through it in a different time, and in slightly different circumstances. When your kids read this, or you read it to them, be prepared for lots of stories about what goes on in their own lives at school and with their friends - those places and situations that parents rarely get a glimpse of. Maybe this book will help your child work through their own difficult times with friends or school. Maybe it will prompt them to bring things up to you, and seek your help in figuring it all out. Even if nothing is going on, your kiddos will enjoy this sometimes sad, sometimes tough to read, sometimes funny, sometimes heartwarming, but always entertaining book.

For the Kids:
It's every kid's nightmare. One day, you lose a journal, or a notebook, or a note, or your smart phone, and it's full of stuff you think about your friends but never were going to let them see. Just your own private thoughts. Because let's face it - even your best friends have things that bug you, and sometimes you just gotta let it out somehow, but you'd never say it to their face 'cause it would hurt their feelings. What would you do if you lost that thing, and your friends found it...and read it? If you read Harriet the Spy, you can see how one kid lived through it, and what she had to deal with, and most importantly, how she survived it.

For Everyone Else:
Harriet the Spy is one of those titles everyone remembers, sometimes with a cringe, because what Harriet has to deal with is so not fun. Being a kid is not easy - especially when your most private thoughts somehow end up on public display. Go on and pick up a copy. Remind yourself that being a kid was not as easy as it seems now that you're not a kid. And remind yourself that, just as kids can learn from adults, sometimes an adult can learn valuable life lessons...from a kid.

Wrapping Up:
Harriet the Spy is a true classic, with an enduring theme and that personal connection that readers long for in a book. Find a copy for yourself, and get reading today.

Title: Harriet the Spy
Author and Illustrator: Louise Fitzhugh
Pages: 320
Reading Level: Ages 9-12
Publisher and Date: Yearling, May 8, 2001
Edition: Reprint
Language: English
Published In: United States
Price: $6.50
ISBN-10: 0440416795
ISBN-13: 978-0440416791