I have a theory about "Harriet the Spy". I suspect that no adult that read this book once (and only once) as a child remembers it correctly. For example, if you had asked me, prior to rereading it, what the plot of "Harriet the Spy" was, I could have summed it up like so: Harriet the Spy is about a girl who wants to be a spy. She spies on lots of different people and writes in a notebook, but one day all her friends read the notebook and none of them like her anymore. That is the plot of "Harriet the Spy". And I would be half right. Surprising to me, I found I was forgetting much much more.
In truth, "Harriet the Spy" is about class, loss, and being true to one's own self. Harriet M. Welch (the M. was her own invention) is the daughter of rather well-to-do socialites. Raised by her nurse Ole Golly until the ripe old age of eleven, Harriet must come to terms with Ole Golly's eventual abandonment. Ole Golly marries and leaves Harriet to her own devices just as the aforementioned tragedy involving her friends and the notebook occurs. The combination of the nurse's disappearance from Harriet's life (leaving behind such oh-so helpful pieces of advice as, "Don't cry", and the like) and the subsequent hatred directed at Harriet by her former friends makes Harriet into a veritable she-devil. A willful child from the start (punishments are few and far between in the Welch family) Harriet slowly spirals downward until a helpful note from Ole Golly gives her the advice she needs to carry on.
So many things about this book appeal to kids. The realistic nature of peer interactions is one. Harriet randomly despises various kids, even before her notebook is read. After making their lives terrible, she eventually has to experience what they themselves have had to deal with. Author Louise Fitzhugh is such a good writer, though, that even as you disapprove of Harriet's more nasty tendencies you sympathize with her. Honestly, who would want ink dumped down their back? As Harriet observes various people on her spy route, she writes her observations about them as well as about life itself. She hasn't quite figured out the differences between her life and the life of her best friend Sport (the son of an impoverished irresponsible writer) though she does briefly ponder if she herself is rich (the fact that she has her own private bath, nurse, and family cook never quite occurs to her). On the whole, the book contains a multitude of wonderful characters. Harriet's parents are both amusing and annoying, completely dedicated to their daughter and completely clueless about her needs. I was especially shocked by a section of the book in which Harriet asks her mother if she'll be allowed to eat dinner with her parents that night. Gaah!
Accompanying the text are Fitzhugh's own meticulous line drawings. They're fantastic and eerie. Combined with this timeless story (timeless in all the good ways) the book deserves its status as one of the best books for children. Read it again to remember. You'll find a whole lot more than you bargained for.