Harriet the Spy

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Harriet the Spy
Harriet the Spy (book) cover.jpg
First ever edition
AuthorLouise Fitzhugh
IllustratorLouise Fitzhugh
GenreChildren's spy novel
PublisherHarper & Row
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardcover)
Pages298 (first ed.)[1]
ISBN978-0-440-41679-1 [2]
LC ClassPZ7.F5768 Har[1]
Followed byThe Long Secret 

Harriet the Spy is a children's novel written and illustrated by Louise Fitzhugh that was published in 1964. It has been called "a milestone in children's literature" and a "classic".[3][4] In the U.S. it ranked number 12 in The 50 Best Books for Kids and number 17 in The Top 100 Children's Novels on two lists generated in 2012.[5][6]

It was followed by two sequels or "companion books", The Long Secret (1965) and Sport (1979).

Plot summary[edit]

In 1964, eleven-year-old Harriet M. Welsch is an aspiring writer who lives in New York City's Upper East Side. Harriet is precocious, ambitious and enthusiastic about her future career. Encouraged by her nanny, Catherine "Ole Golly," Harriet carefully observes others and writes her thoughts down in a notebook as practice for her future career, to which she dedicates her life. She follows an afternoon "spy route", during which she observes her classmates, friends, and people who reside in her neighborhood. One subject that Harriet observes is a local store, where the younger son Fabio cannot make anything of his career in contrast to the hardworking and loyal Bruno, and where the stock boy Joe Curry or "Little Joe" is eating in the storeroom and feeding homeless kids instead of working.

Harriet's best friends are Simon "Sport" Rocque, a serious boy who wants to be a CPA or a ball player, and Janie Gibbs, who wants to be a scientist. Harriet's enemies in her class are Marion Hawthorne, the teacher's pet and self-appointed queen bee of her class, and Marion's best friend and second-in-command, Rachel Hennessy.

Harriet enjoys having structure in her life. For example, she regularly eats tomato sandwiches and adamantly refuses to consume other types of sandwiches. She also resists "girlie" activities, as when her parents expect her to attend dance school and she stubbornly refuses. Ole Golly gets Harriet to change her mind on dance school by telling her the stories of Josephine Baker and Mata Hari.

Harriet's life changes abruptly when Ole Golly's suitor, Mr. Waldenstein, proposes and she accepts. Mrs. Welsch (who, ironically, had threatened to fire her earlier in a fit of panicked rage at finding Harriet missing in the middle of the night) exclaims, "You can't leave, what will we do without you?" Ole Golly replies that she had planned to leave soon anyway, because she believes Harriet is old enough to care for herself. Harriet is crushed by the loss of her nanny, to whom she was very close. Her mother and father, who have been largely absentee parents because of their obligations to work and social life, are at a loss to understand Harriet's feelings and are of little comfort to her.

At school, during a game of tag, Harriet loses her notebook. Her classmates find it and are appalled at her brutally honest documentation of her opinions of them. For example, in the notebook she compares Sport to a "little old woman" for his continual worrying about his father, and says that Marion Hawthorne is destined to grow up to be a "lady Hitler." The students form a "Spy Catcher Club" in which they think up ways to make Harriet's life miserable, such as stealing her lunch and passing nasty notes about her in class. When the kids orchestrate a prank to spill ink on Harriet and make it look like an accident, it backfires when she slaps Marion in revenge, leaving a blue hand print on Marion's face.

Harriet regularly spies on the Spy Catcher Club through a back fence and concocts vengeful ways to punish them. She realizes the consequences of the mean things she wrote, but because she is hurt and lonely, she thinks up special punishments for each member of the club. After getting into trouble for carrying out some of her plans, Harriet tries to resume her friendship with Sport and Janie as if nothing had ever happened, but they both reject her. Harriet stops doing schoolwork and spends all her time in class writing in her notebook, making plans against the Spy Catcher Club. She skips school for days at a time and stays in bed because of depression. When her grades go down, Harriet's parents confiscate her notebook, which only depresses her further.

Harriet's mother takes her daughter to see a psychiatrist, who advises Harriet's parents to get in touch with Ole Golly and ask her to write to Harriet. In her letter, Ole Golly tells Harriet that if anyone ever reads her notebook, "you have to do two things, and you don't like either one of them. 1: You have to apologize. 2: You have to lie. Otherwise you are going to lose a friend."

Meanwhile, dissent is rippling through the Spy Catcher Club. Marion and Rachel are calling all the shots, and Sport and Janie are tired of being bossed around. When they quit the club, most of their classmates do the same.

Harriet's parents speak with her teacher and the headmistress, and Harriet is appointed editor of the class newspaper, replacing Marion. The newspaper—featuring stories about the people on Harriet's spy route and the students' parents—becomes an instant success. Harriet also uses the paper to print a retraction of the things she had written in her journal. Harriet is forgiven by Sport and Janie.


The book appeared on a 1964 list of "The Year's Best Juveniles" in The New York Times Book Review.[7] One 1965 reviewer called the book "a brilliantly written, unsparing realistic story, a superb portrait of an extraordinary child".[8] Another reviewer found that it "captures the feelings, thoughts and situations of a modern city child with remarkable clarity and dimension".[9] Nevertheless, at least one reviewer in 1965 felt that the book dealt with "disagreeable people and situations".[10] Although it was not chosen as one of the American Library Association (ALA) Notable Books for Children for 1964, years later it was included in a retrospective 1960–1964 ALA Notable Books List.[3]

It won a Sequoyah Book Award in 1967.[11] The paperback version was selected as one of the "Best in the Field" published during the previous 16 months in a 1968 New York Times article.[12] In 1995, Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies claimed that 2.5 million copies of the book had been sold;[13] however, the book did not appear on a 2001 Publishers Weekly list of "hardcovers that have sold 750,000 copies and paperbacks that have topped the one million copy mark."[14]

Whitney Matheson wrote on the USA Today site in 2002 that Harriet "attracts dedicated, lifelong supporters".[15] Anita Silvey in 2004 selected it as one of the 100 best books for children.[16] In 2005, the ex-CIA officer Lindsay Moran cited the Harriet the Spy series of books as an inspiration for her career.[17] It was included in a 2009 list of "Children’s Classics" by The Horn Book Magazine.[18]

In 2012 Harriet the Spy was ranked number 17 among all-time children's novels in a survey published by School Library Journal.[6] Earlier that year, Time Out New York Kids ranked it number 12 among "The 50 Best Books for Kids".[5] Late in 2015 the same source ranked it number 34 in "The 73 best kids' books of all time for families".[19]

Despite its popularity, the book has been banned from some schools and libraries "because it was said to set a bad example for children".[4][20][21] Along with Are You There God?, Blubber, and Where the Sidewalk Ends, the book was challenged at a 1983 school board meeting in Xenia, Ohio.[22] Proponents of the Xenia ban stated that the book "teaches children to lie, spy, back-talk and curse", but the board voted to keep the books in the school libraries.[22][23]

Although the book does not state the title character's sexuality, lesbians have identified with Harriet due to her being an "outsider" and due to her dressing like a boy.[4] For example, Harriet wore high-top sneakers, a rarity for girls in the 1960s.[24] Furthermore, Fitzhugh was known to be a lesbian, and the "Boy with the Purple Socks" character in the book may have been gay as the color purple is associated with the gay community. However, this was not confirmed as the boy later states his true name is Peter and he got lost in a crowd one day, and that his mother forced him to wear purple socks from that day forward as an immediate identifier to prevent future cases of getting lost.[24] Harriet's friend Sport is not like 1960s gender norms, as he cooks and cleans in addition to taking care of other household tasks due to his absentee mother and stay-at-home father who is consumed with trying to get his novel published. At one point Harriet suggests to herself getting even with Sport by saying she should call him a "sissy" and spread rumors that he reads cook books. Sport, for his part, is not a total deviant from boyhood norms, saying that plenty of guys cook for a living, such as truck stop employees, and like many other boys, would love to have a career in professional sports. Sport is also a realist, saying that pro ball is probably not a part of his future, and believes he can parlay his early detail of family bookkeeping into an accounting career as an adult.

Selected translations[edit]

  • Harriet - Spionage aller Art (German, 1968)
  • Harriet l'Espionne (French, 1980)
  • הרייט המרגלת (Hebrew, 1984, ISBN 9650302190)
  • Professione? Spia! (Italian, 1989, ISBN 8804322802)
  • スパイになりたいハリエットのいじめ解決法 / Supai ni naritai harietto no ijime kaiketsuhō (Japanese, 1995, ISBN 4061947303)
  • A Espiã (Portuguese, 1999, ISBN 8571646414)
  • Spiunia Harrietë (Albanian, 2016, ISBN 9789928219091)


Fitzhugh wrote two sequels to the book: The Long Secret (1965) and Sport (1979, published posthumously).[25][26] Both books received mixed reviews.[27][28]

Sport is a spin-off that focuses on Simon "Sport" Rocque, expanding upon his brief family background covered in Harriet the Spy. As his parents are divorced, Sport lives with his father who is a struggling writer who has been focusing on a book (a big gamble) rather than the steady income of journal/newspaper articles, with Sport managing their finances. Their financial problems are exacerbated once Sport's grandfather Simon Vane (from his mother's side) becomes terminally ill and stops sending regular payments to Sport. Things change for the better once Sport's father meets the kind Kate who becomes a good stepmother. However Simon's will has named Sport as the main beneficiary to the $30 million family fortune, much to the chagrin of Sport's mother Charlotte Vane and her sister. Charlotte, an absentee mother who has been living well abroad in Europe most of the time, returns to New York City upon hearing of her father's illness, scheming to increase her share of Simon's inheritance by kidnapping Sport and imprisoning him in the Plaza Hotel for a week.[29]

In 2002, a sequel Harriet Spies Again appeared; written by Helen Ericson, it also received mixed reviews.[30][31][32] Another sequel, Harriet the Spy, Double Agent by Maya Gold, was published in 2005;[33][34] one review of that book stated "there's not much to interest readers here."[35]

  • Harriet the Spy (Harper & Row, 1964); also Harriet, the Spy
  • The Long Secret (Harper & Row, 1965)
  • Sport (Dell Publishing/Delacorte Press, 1979), Fitzhugh[36]
  • Harriet Spies Again (Dell/Delacorte, 2002), Helen Ericson [and Fitzhugh][37]
  • Harriet the Spy, DoubleAgent (Dell/Delacorte, 2005), Maya Gold and Fitzhugh[38]


Film rights to the novel were bought by Herbert Swope in 1964.[39]

Harriet the Spy was made into a 1996 film of the same name. It starred Michelle Trachtenberg and was the first film to be produced by Nickelodeon's feature film division.

In September 2004, Mainframe Entertainment announced that Protocol Entertainment will produce a new Harriet the Spy live-action television series, consisting of at least 22 half-hour episodes, with 2 Friends Entertainment acting as Executive Producers and US sales agent and Mainframe retaining international distribution rights.[40][41]

In March 2010, Disney Channel aired a version of the story, Harriet the Spy: Blog Wars. This starred Wizards of Waverly Place cast member Jennifer Stone as Harriet, Alexander Conti from Cheaper by the Dozen 2 as Harriet's friend Sport, and Degrassi: The Next Generation's Melinda Shankar as Janie. In this film Harriet competes against Marion Hawthorne to see who has a better blog.

In August 2020, it was announced that Apple TV+ had given the production a series order to an animated television adaptation of the novel. The series will be produced by The Jim Henson Company and Rehab Entertainment with Will McRobb as writer, Sidney Clifton as producer and Terissa Kelton and John W. Hyde as executive producer and starring Beanie Feldstein as Harriet, Jane Lynch as Ole Golly, and Lacey Chabert as Marion Hawthorne.[42] The series will be released on November 19, 2021.[43]


  1. ^ a b "Harriet, the spy". LC Online Catalog. Library of Congress. Retrieved December 29, 2014.
  2. ^ Unknown later Harper & Row edition OCLC 301132.
  3. ^ a b Elleman, Barbara (1987). "Current Trends in Literature for Children" (PDF). Library Trends. Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 35 (3): 413–26. Retrieved March 17, 2013.
  4. ^ a b c Grant, Neva (March 3, 2008). "Unapologetically Harriet, the Misfit Spy". Morning Edition. NPR. Retrieved March 23, 2013.
  5. ^ a b Bird, Elizabeth (March 1, 2012). "The 50 Best Books for Kids". Time Out New York Kids (timeout.com). Retrieved March 22, 2013.
  6. ^ a b Bird, Elizabeth (June 12, 2012). "Top 100 Children's Novels #17: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh". School Library Journal "A Fuse #8 Production" blog. Retrieved March 16, 2013.
  7. ^ "The Year's Best Juveniles". The New York Times Book Review. December 6, 1964. p. 52.
  8. ^ Goodwin, Polly (January 24, 1965). "The Junior Bookshelf". Chicago Tribune. p. B7.
  9. ^ Taylor, Mark (February 21, 1965). "An Excellent Trio for Children". Los Angeles Times. p. B7.
  10. ^ Helson, Ravenna (1976). "Change, Tradition, and Critical Styles in the Contemporary World of Children's Books". Children's Literature. 5 (1): 22–39. doi:10.1353/chl.0.0757.
  11. ^ "Children's Sequoyah Winners". Oklahoma Library Association. Archived from the original on May 6, 2014. Retrieved March 16, 2013.
  12. ^ Woods, George; O'Connor, Margaret F. (February 25, 1968). "Best in the Field: For Children". New York Times Book Review: Paperbacks. Section 7, Part 2, pages 18 & 20.
  13. ^ Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies (December 8, 1995). "Michelle Trachtenberg is Harriet; Rosie O'Donnell Her Mentor in the Action-Comedy "Harriet The Spy" (press release)". PR Newswire Association LLC. Retrieved March 22, 2013.
  14. ^ Roback, Diane; Britton, Jason, eds. (December 17, 2001). "All-Time Bestselling Children's Books". Publishers Weekly. 248 (51). Retrieved March 22, 2013.
  15. ^ Matheson, Whitney (June 27, 2002). "Still Spying After All These Years". USA Today. Retrieved March 22, 2013.
  16. ^ Silvey, Anita (2004). 100 Best Books for Children. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0618278893.
  17. ^ Ensor, David (January 12, 2005). "Moran: 'It's a dirty business'". CNN. Retrieved March 16, 2013.
  18. ^ Burns, Mary M. (2009). "Children's Classics: A Booklist for Parents" (PDF). The Horn Book. Archived from the original (PDF) on May 24, 2012. Retrieved March 20, 2013.
  19. ^ Bird, Elizabeth, and the editors (September 15, 2015). "The 73 best kids' books of all time for families" [40 to 37]. Time Out New York Kids (timeout.com). Retrieved October 27, 2015.
  20. ^ Brunner, Borgna (2007). "Banned Books From Harriet the Spy to The Catcher in the Rye". Information Please. Pearson Education. Retrieved March 23, 2013.
  21. ^ Driscoll, Molly; O'Carroll, Eoin. "30 Banned Books That May Surprise You: 1. 'Harriet the Spy,' by Louise Fitzhugh". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved March 16, 2013.
  22. ^ a b Denger, Laurie (October 25, 1993). "Issues in Xenia Schools Boiling for Decade". Dayton Daily News.
  23. ^ Eichhorn-Hicks, Meghara (March 5, 2009). "Banning Books: Keeping Our Children Safe from the Perils of Free Thinking". Minneapolis Examiner.
  24. ^ a b Horning, Kathleen T. (January–February 2005). "On Spies and Purple Socks and Such". Horn Book Magazine. 81 (1): 49–55. Archived from the original on September 28, 2012. Retrieved March 23, 2013.
  25. ^ Fitzhugh, Louise (1965). The Long Secret. New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0060214104.
  26. ^ Fitzhugh, Louise (1979). Sport. New York: Delacorte Press. ISBN 0440078865.
  27. ^ Sutton, Roger (July–August 2001). "Bring Out Your Dead". Horn Book Magazine. 77 (4). Archived from the original on May 24, 2012. Retrieved March 17, 2013.
  28. ^ Schmitz, Terri (September–October 2001). "Characters You Can Count On". Horn Book Magazine. 77 (5): 557–567.
  29. ^ [1]
  30. ^ Ericson, Helen (2002). Harriet Spies Again. New York: Delacorte Press. ISBN 0385327862.
  31. ^ "Harriet Spies Again by Helen Ericson (review)". Kirkus Reviews. March 1, 2002. Retrieved March 17, 2013.
  32. ^ Weisman, Kay (December 1, 2002). "Reflections on Fiction Spin-offs: Should Harriet Spy Again?". Booklist. 99 (7): 667.
  33. ^ Gold, Maya (2005). Harriet the Spy, Double Agent. New York: Delacorte Press. ISBN 0385327870.
  34. ^ Carton, Debbie (September 1, 2005). "Gold, Maya. Harriet the Spy, Double Agent (book review)". Booklist. 102 (1): 132.
  35. ^ Le, Amanda Conover (January 2006). "Harriet the Spy, Double Agent (review)". School Library Journal. 52 (1). Archived from the original on April 11, 2013. Retrieved March 22, 2013.
  36. ^ Formats and Editions of Sport. WorldCat. Retrieved December 29, 2014.
  37. ^ Formats and Editions of Harriet spies again. WorldCat. Retrieved December 29, 2014.
  38. ^ Formats and Editions of Harriet the spy, double agent. WorldCat. Retrieved December 29, 2014.
  39. ^ Weiler, A. H. (June 26, 1966). "On Bing Barnum's 'Moon'". The New York Times. Page D11.
  41. ^ Demott, Rick (September 21, 2004). "Mainframe & Protocol Team On Live-Action Harriet The Spy". Animation World Network (AWN.com). Retrieved December 29, 2014.
  42. ^ Alexandra Del Rosario (August 12, 2020). "'Harriet The Spy' Kids Animated Series Starring Beanie Feldstein, Jane Lynch & Lacey Chabert Ordered By Apple". Deadline Hollywood.
  43. ^ https://collider.com/harriet-the-spy-animated-tv-show-trailer-beanie-feldstein/

Further reading[edit]

  • Molson, Francis J. (1974). "Another Look at Harriet the Spy". Elementary English. 51 (7): 963–970. doi:10.1353/chq.1991.0016.
  • Wolf, Virginia L. (1975). "Harriet the Spy". Children's Literature. 4 (1): 120–126. doi:10.1353/chl.0.0700.
  • Paul, Lissa (1989). "The Feminist Writer as Heroine in Harriet the Spy". The Lion and the Unicorn. 13 (1): 67–73. doi:10.1353/uni.0.0433. S2CID 144852947.
  • John, Judith Gero (1991). "The Legacy of Peter Pan and Wendy: Images of Lost Innocence and Social Consequences in Harriet the Spy". Children's Literature Association Quarterly 1991 Proceedings. 1991: 168–173. doi:10.1353/chq.1991.0016.
  • Bernstein, Robin (2000–2001). "'Too Realistic' and 'Too Distorted': The Attack on Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy and the Gaze of the Queer Child". Critical Matrix: The Princeton Journal of Women, Gender, and Culture. 12 (1–2): Critical Matrix: The Princeton Journal of Women, Gender, and Culture.
  • Bernstein, Robin (2011). "The Queerness of Harriet the Spy". In Abate, Michelle Ann; Kidd, Kenneth B. (eds.). Over the Rainbow: Queer Children's and Young Adult Literature. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan. pp. 111–120. ISBN 978-0-472-07146-3.

External links[edit]