Friday, September 1, 2017

Harriet the Spy and Me

I was lucky enough to the musical Hamilton a couple of weeks ago. (No, we didn't win the lottery; it was my Christmas-birthday-Mother's Day-and possibly next Christmas present.)  I found myself describing it as a transformative experience. It totally changed my idea of a Broadway musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda's show was unlike anything theater I'd ever seen,and I've seen a lot of theater.

This got me thinking; is there a literary equivalent to Hamilton in my life? Is there a book that turned my concept of children's literature on it's head? More importantly, was it a book I read as a child? 

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.
I bought this hardcover edition with my 1st adult paycheck.

When it was published in 1964, children's books portrayed a perfect world. Or as I thought of it, a "TV World." I called it "TV World, because my mother once said, "TV shows are Hollywood's idea of what the world is like. It's all phony." 

Well, of course no one I knew lived in an enormous house like Dennis the Menace, or kept a horse like Mr. Ed in their backyard. None of the mothers in my neighborhood walked around the house in pearls and heels and pristine dresses with crinoline petticoats. But secretly, I thought Mom was wrong. Those big houses and horses and Donna Reed-mothers had to be somewhere.  Maybe in the next town over, the one with a country club!
Those are apples dangling from the waist!

That was the world of children's books as well.  In the books I read, all families had a mom and dad, except for the occasional book where a parent had died (no one was ever divorced or just took off.)  Children could be disobedient or mildly rebellious, but in the end, the main character always discovered mother/father did know best. Parents were all wise, all-knowing. 

Ten-year-old me had a vastly different opinion of the adult
Me, at 10 and Mom
world. I found nothing wrong with eavesdropping and outright snooping on my parents secrets. They were so close-mouthed, that I didn't learn I had a brother who died at birth when I was 4, until I was 12. I didn't even know she was pregnant. (She spent the whole eight months on bedrest.)

I was the kid who butted into adult conversations. I hated being told that "children should be seen and not heard." And lots of times I knew the adults were at best, misinformed or at worst, just plain stupid.

The words that appeared most often in the comment section of my report cards were "opinionated" "non-conforming" and "inappropriately precocious." Fortunately, my parents blew off the teachers' observations. They completely agreed with them....and so what? As long as I wasn't arsonist or flunking classes, my personality was none of the teacher's business.

I do not know how Harriet the Spy, which raised all kind of controversy when it was published, wound up in the Jackson, Mississippi public library and into my hot little hands. Maybe Jackson in 1964 was too preoccupied with keeping the libraries segregated and those pesky civil rights workers up North "where they belong" to scrutinize what was on the shelves of the children's section. I'm glad they didn't.  Meeting Harriet M. Welsch was my transformative moment.

The book started predictably. The main character's life was in no way like mine. Harriet lived in New York City brownstone, which according to what I knew of NYC automatically made her a rich kid. She had a nanny and went to a private school. Check and check. Rich kid.

But then Harriet fell off the Leave It to Beaver path.  She liked to spy on people. I liked to spy on people, and nobody ever told her not to. I was a master of listening through heating vents, and drinking glasses pressed to walls. Harriet was opinionated and let people know it. Me? See report card comments above.  Harriet and I both wore pants and sweatshirts and sneakers outside of school in an era when girls had three categories of clothes--dress up dresses. school dresses and play dresses.  No pants. Ever.  Harriet wanted to be a writer.  I wanted to be a writer. Harriet's best friend was a boy, Sport. My best friends were usually boys.  
My role-model, Harriet M. Welsch

But most of all, Harriet perceived most adults (with the exception of her beloved nanny, Ole Golly) as stupid. So did I! Adult Me would've said that most adults are clueless as to what children think and want. Ten-year-old me just thought they dumb as rocks. I lived in an age when children were not supposed to have independent ideas or question anything, once we got past those pesky "whys?" of toddlerhood. 

I read gleefully as Harriet observes all the "dumb grown-ups" and a number of her equally "dumb" classmates.  She logs her "observations" in her notebook.  A notebook that eventually falls into the wrong hands. (At this point, 5th grade Me decided to give all the people in MY journals  pseudonyms.)  Harriet suddenly finds herself with no friends,and in constant trouble at school.  Even worse, her parents confiscate her new notebook.  Total agony for a writer!   What would happen to Harriet? How can she even think without a notebook to hold her thoughts?

As the end of the book approached, I read slower and slower because I dreaded the inevitable ending. Harriet would realize the dumb adults and students weren't "finks" (a word I learned from her and still use today).  They were right and she was wrong. Grown-ups were always right. They're grown-ups.

That's not how it ended. Ole Golly tells Harriet that although she knows Harriet will not like it, if someone reads her notebook and is offended, Harriet will have to "1) apologize and 2)lie.  Otherwise you are going to lose a friend."

Harriet apologizes to her closest friends. They accept. (She does not apologize to the fink classmates, because they are still finks.) Harriet and her pals walk off into the sunset, still friends.  Hey, what? The book is over? Doesn't Harriet realize her parents and teachers and all the other adults know better than her? No!  The only adult she respects at the beginning of the book is Ole Golly, and in the end, is still the only one she respects. Did the author mean...that...sometimes adults aren't right? Really? It's OK to think that? Well, YAY!!!

That was a transformative moment for me.  Maybe Harriet didn't live in a 1200 square foot ranch house and go to  public school like I did, but by golly, she thought like me! And that was OK.  Real people (and Harriet was nothing but real to me) didn't live in TV World.  (OK, so Mom was right about that one.)They weren't perfect. Or if they had problems, they weren't neatly solved by the last chapter. 

Real life was messy. 

It was only after I became a children's librarian that I realizes that Harriet the Spy was banned in some places. The claim was that it "taught" children to "lie, spy, back talk and curse." Sure I did all those things. I did them before I read Harriet the Spy and I did them afterwards. Sure, my parents didn't like it. (Neither did Harriet's parents). But I did them because I was a normal kid. Not some adult writer's idea of a model child. In fact, when I first read the book, I was convinced that Louise Fitzhugh was a kid writer. She couldn't be that much older than me. I was shocked to learn she was 37! That was almost as old as my mom! How could someone so ancient remember so well what children thought and felt and said?

Fitzhugh's work never patronized her readers, or pussy footed around a "difficult" situation. She understood her readers and talked to them, not at them.  

Being able to access the child you were at five or eleven or fifteen is the secret to good writing for kids. Louise Fitzhugh (and Harriet) taught me to never forget my inner child (although they didn't call it that when I was eleven.)  I never have.

Suddenly, I have an urge for a tomato-and-mayonnaise sandwich. (If you've read the book, you know what I mean.)

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for this great post, MA. I don't think our library had HARRIET because I never read it. I'll have to get my hands on a copy!

Mary Ann Rodman said...

Heaven forfend, my friend. Posthaste to the library (which surely has it now) and read what was a real game changer for me and a lot of us oddball kids in the 60's.