Harriet the Spy
Harriet the Spy (book) cover.jpg
First ever edition
AuthorLouise Fitzhugh
IllustratorLouise Fitzhugh
SeriesNovel Chap1-64
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 book for kids and number 17 all-time children's novel on two lists generated in 2012.[5][6]

Plot summary

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 seen 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. However, Harriet's life changes abruptly after Ole Golly's suitor, Mr. Waldenstein, proposes and she accepts; when 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) asks "You can't leave, what will we do without you?!" Ole Golly replies that she had planned to leave soon 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 during Ole Golly's tenure as nanny due to their obligations to work and social life, are at a loss to understand Harriet's feelings and are of little comfort to her.

Later at school, during her period 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 her notebook she compares Sport to a "little old woman" for his continual worrying about his father or saying 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, passing nasty notes about her in class, or trying to draw her out by selling stories about a new boy who wears purple socks. However, when the kids orchestrate a prank to spill ink on Harriet and make it look like an accident, this backfires when she slaps Marion in revenge, leaving a blue hand print on Marion's face.

Harriet regularly spies on them through a back fence and concocts vengeful ways to punish them. She realizes the consequences of the mean things she wrote, and though she is hurt and lonely, she still 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 spends all her time in class writing in her notebook as a part of her plan to outfox the Spy Catcher Club. As a result of never doing her schoolwork and of skipping school for days at a time and taking to her bed out of depression, her grades suffer. This leads Harriet's parents to confiscate her notebook, which only depresses Harriet further. Harriet's mother takes her daughter to see a psychiatrist, who advises Harriet's parents to contact Ole Golly and encourage Harriet's former nanny to write to her. 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 make amends by printing a retraction, defeating Marion, and 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 34th among "kids books of all time for families", a collection including many children's picture books.[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