Harriet M. Welsch is such a gem. I’ve read both of these books, particularly Harriet the Spy, many, many times in my life because I so enjoy spending a little time with her.
They both focus on Harriet (11 in Harriet the Spy, 12 in The Long Secret), a sixth-grader at an exclusive private school in New York City. She wants to be a writer someday, and has an insatiable curiosity that she feeds by writing down everything she observes in her notebook. She has a “spy route” of certain people in her neighborhood that she spies on regularly, but in addition to them she also keeps notes on her family members and friends.
In Harriet the Spy, her friends find and read her notebook and she is ostracized. At the same time, she is trying to grapple with losing someone she was very close with. The Long Secret takes place the next summer, when she and her family are vacationing in Montauk and she’s trying to discover who is leaving suspicious and pointed notes for the town’s residents (for instance, her friend Beth Ellen’s deadbeat mother gets a note that says, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a rotten parent”). There’s also quite a bit about puberty in The Long Secret (nowhere near the classic that Harriet the Spy is, but still enjoyable), and what an emotional roller coaster it can be.
Harriet had quite an unusual childhood. I certainly didn’t have anything in common with her Upper East Side upbringing. Her parents have a kind of glamorous lifestyle where they’re always going out in black tie and not coming back til she’s in bed. They have a live-in cook. She is raised by her nanny, Ole Golly, a very no-nonsense tweedy type. But Harriet is not what you’d expect from an upbringing like that. She’s extremely forthright, cares little to nothing about appearances (and in fact is disgusted by the people she spies on who do care about such things), and is not at all snobbish. She’s a very real character, who does and says a lot of mean things (she is a sixth-grader, after all), but wants to be a good person and friend. She’s able to be introspective and despises people who can’t or won’t admit who they really are. She’s certainly very privileged, but Louise Fitzhugh takes pains to teach her a few lessons about that privilege. For example, when talking to her best friend Sport, she remarks, “I hate money.” Sport, who at age 11 has taken over the running of his household since his mother left and his father thinks of nothing but writing his novel, retorts, “Well, you’d jolly well like it if you didn’t have any.”
While Harriet the Spy focuses squarely on Harriet, The Long Secret also spends a lot of time with the shy Beth Ellen, who’s basically Harriet’s opposite. Harriet is bold and always says exactly what she’s thinking, while Beth Ellen agonizes so much over her thoughts that she doesn’t even know what she’s thinking. Harriet lives in all caps, while Beth Ellen prefers to hide in parentheses. Beth Ellen is the one I always identified with, and even though she’s less fun than Harriet, she feels just as real.
I’ve always loved Harriet, both in spite of and because of her many flaws. Harriet is exactly who she is, which if you think about it is pretty rare for a preadolescent. Reading about someone who is just unapologetically herself was valuable to me as a child. The books were written in the 60s, so they’re a bit dated at this point, but I still think Harriet is an excellent role model for girls, especially those who need a little more courage.
(Rating: 5 stars for Harriet the Spy, 3 for The Long Secret)