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After 37 years of delight, Classic 'Harriet the Spy' tales get classic editions

Tuesday, June 26, 2001

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Thirty-seven years ago, Harper & Row publishers, under the visionary leadership of children's editor Ursula Nordstrom, took a chance and published a groundbreaking kid's novel called "Harriet the Spy."

Written by Louise Fitzhugh, "Harriet the Spy" featured what was then a rare heroine -- an 11-year-old girl who was intelligent, querulous, insatiably inquisitive and, above all, honest.

To children accustomed to the generally docile (and often boring) heroines of most children's literature, Harriet M. Welsch was a wonder. She was a child who thought and acted for herself. Among children, at least, the book became an instant favorite.

Boys and girls delight in both Harriet's stubborn individuality and the real-life portrait of the social challenges of middle school that she faces when her classmates read what she has written about them in her journal.

To celebrate the continuing interest in "Harriet the Spy," Delacorte Press recently reissued the book in a new "classic edition." Delacorte also republished two other Harriet books, "The Long Secret" and "Sport." All of the books cost $15.95 each, feature striking line drawings by Fitzhugh and are aimed at kids ages 9-12.

With the plethora of strong girl characters in today's children's literature, it's easy to forget how very different Harriet was when she first made the scene in 1964. Nordstrom, who was legendary for her ability to find new authors (including Margaret Wise Brown, Maurice Sendak and Shel Silverstein), also liked to push the envelope to create more real-life books for children.

As Nordstrom put it in a form response to letters of complaint from parents about "Harriet the Spy": "We think that any subject of interest to young readers can be treated, by a creative writer, in books for young readers. It is difficult to find the writers; but if we can find writers who will write the manuscripts, we are sure the children will welcome more vigorous books."

Fitzhugh and Harriet fit the bill perfectly. A moody, quirky person like her heroine, Fitzhugh had a genius for capturing the way children think and feel and act when there is no adult around. That's why kids liked her books so much, and why so many adults were confused by them.

The only child of well-to-do parents, Harriet lives in Manhattan and is cared for by a nanny named Ole Golly, who is an extraordinary character in her own right. Ole Golly encourages Harriet to follow her passion, which is spying on people and writing up her findings.

Every day, Harriet heads out after school for her spy route, notebook and pencil in hand. Although Harriet is naturally curious, she sees her spying as "work" and an important preparation for her goal of being a writer. She records, in frank detail, everything she sees.

Unfortunately for Harriet, she also honestly records her thoughts about her classmates and even her friends. And that's what gets her into trouble when her classmates get hold of her journal and read what she has written about them.

Harriet couldn't care less about what most of her classmates think of her. But she can see how deeply she has wounded her two friends, Janie, whose life revolves around science, and Sport, who spends most of his time taking care of his absent-minded writer father.

Because she's been taught to be honest -- and because her journal is, after all, marked "Private!!" -- Harriet is unsure how to respond. She doesn't want to lie, but it's clear that something must be done to try to repair her relationships with her friends, who have joined her classmates in publicly belittling her.

Harriet's life is a mess, all right, and it's not clear what is the best path for her to take. Just as in real life, there's lots of ambiguity here, and part of Fitzhugh's considerable talent is that she is able to express this at a level that kids can understand and appreciate.

Fitzhugh stretched the boundaries of children's literature even further the following year, when she published "The Long Secret." Here she vividly portrays the inner world of unhappy 11-year-old Beth Ellen. The families of Beth Ellen and Harriet both have summer houses on Long Island, so the two pal around together during the summer.

The story of "The Long Secret" is intricate and sometimes wacky, involving an itinerant evangelical family, some secret notes and the temporary return of Beth Ellen's awful mother. But the book is truly notable for two things. First, Fitzhugh writes honestly and humorously about menstruation, the first time this taboo subject was raised in children's literature. There's also a marvelous discussion about God between Harriet and her father. Again, this was not a typical topic for kids' books of the time, especially as Fitzhugh details the confusion Harriet's father feels about God.

Harriet makes only a token appearance in the third book, "Sport," which focuses on her friend. Sport's father has custody of his son, and Sport hasn't seen his mother for years. But after his grandfather dies leaving most of his money to Sport, his mother takes a sudden interest in him

"Sport" doesn't pack the same emotional wallop as the other two books. But Fitzhugh does tell a good story. "Sport" will particularly interest readers who want to know more about one of Harriet's best friends.

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