Literature: Harriet the Spy

What is she writing? Wouldn't you like to know!

Harriet the Spy is a 1963 book by Louise Fitzhugh about a girl named Harriet who likes to spy on people. Two sequels were written by Fitzhugh—The Long Secret, published the year after Harriet, and Sport, which was published after Fitzhugh's death. Several other sequels were written afterward by ghost authors. The original was adapted into a movie in 1996 starring Michelle Trachtenberg as Harriet and Rosie O'Donnell as Ole Golly; as well as into the movie Harriet the Spy: Blog Wars in 2010.

Harriet is a precocious eleven-year-old who writes down everything because she wants to be a writer when she grows up. She keeps a composition book with her at all times, writing down her observations and general thoughts that pop into her mind. After school, she goes on her spy route. Every day she slinks around people's homes and places of work, watching them and writing down everything they do. One is a birdcage-craftsman who owns twenty-six cats, one is a rich crazy lady who stays in bed all the time, one is an Italian family that runs a deli, and a few others. She also writes down her observations of her parents, teachers, classmates, her best friends Sport and Janie, and her beloved nanny, Ole Golly.

One thing about Harriet, though: she's extremely secretive about the contents of her notebook. No one knows what she writes in it, and for good reason—very few things she writes in it are flattering. They might be true, but they're uncomfortable truths. Sport is poor and does the cooking and housework for his dad, who is a starving writer. Janie is scary and wants to make explosive chemicals with her chemistry set. Rachel Hennessey, the assistant to the Alpha Bitch, has no father. Harriet's own parents are more concerned with their lives than with their daughter. Harriet writes down everything, not just the nice stuff.

So you can imagine what happens when Harriet's notebook falls into the wrong hands...

Provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The 1996 movie, which streamlines the story.
  • Alpha Bitch: Marion Hawthorne.
  • Black and Nerdy: Janie in the movie.
  • Canon Discontinuity: The movie is fine, unless you've read the book. Also, there were a few sequels written... by a different author.
  • Children Raise You: Particularly in the film, being that Sport's father is a neurotic up-and-coming writer, and his mother is out of the picture, Sport takes care of the housework and bills.
  • Crazy Cat Lady: The birdcage maker. He's got 26 cats, and the health department is after him. They get him in the end and take away all his cats. But then at the end of the book, he sneaks in a little kitten... Awwwww.
  • Dance Party Ending: Movie only.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Harriet. Ole Golly at one point even tells her "Don't be snarky."
  • Disappeared Dad: Rachel Hennessey. Also Harriet, in an interesting way. When her father isn't at work, he's mostly unavailable. He does greet her when he comes home from work, and he tries to help her with her Method Acting homework for dramatics class.
  • Double Entendre: When Harriet spies on Ole Golly during her date, her boyfriend takes her to a German restaurant. Harriet knows Ole Golly hates German food, and expects her to complain about it when she asks her about the date. However, when Harriet does so, Ole Golly said it was a wonderful restaurant, and she tried several new types of wurst. Harrier, baffled, wonders if part of being in love is eating a lot of sausages.
  • Eek, a Mouse!!: Mrs. Plummer's reaction to finding Harriet in the dumbwaiter.
  • Endangered Soufflé: Harriet deliberately stomps in the middle of the floor to mess up the cake that the cook is making.
  • Fair Weather Friend: Harriet's two closest friends turn against her amazingly quickly once her notebook is read. They learn better by the end of the story. Harriet has to falsify herself by saying that she "wrote lies" about them in order to win them back.
  • The Film of the Book
  • Free-Range Children: In the movie, the children are only 11, yet they wander aimlessly around town with little to no concern from their parents. The book may have been written in the 60's, but since the movie was clearly set in the 90's, it was a bit jarring to see.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: The book uses gay to mean happy.
  • Humiliation Conga: Happens to Harriet.
  • It's Personal: Both from everyone to Harriet and to everyone from Harriet.
  • Karma Houdini: Harriet's teacher, who bullies her as badly as (and in some cases worse than) the children. She is never caught by another adult and their for never punished for her actions.
  • Make Way for the Princess: Marion greets her "subjects," especially Harriet, this way.
  • Mood Whiplash: The story starts out as a pretty enjoyable and humorous story about a girl who spies on eccentric people who have pretty interesting stories, and has a fairly good life, having two fun best friends: Mad Scientist girl named Janie who is quite smart and fun, and an Adorkable boy named Sport, a fun and caring nanny named Gollie who fills in her for her caring but busy rich parents, and is also rich. But once Gollie leaves to marry her boyfriend (and because she felt Harriet was too old for her by now) in a pretty sad way, the story gets really depressing, with Harriet going from a happy and generally lucky young girl to a total Butt Monkey. First, one of the people she spied on, a cat loving man gets his cats taken away because there are too many. Then she gets caught while spying for once (something that never happened before to her). But the real trouble starts when Harriet loses her notebook in a game of tag, and her less than flattering notes about her classmates are read and discovered by them, who are pretty offended. The class (Sport and Janie included) start a "spy catchers club", bent on making Harriet's life miserable. Her grades then suffer, due to her putting more attention into her notebook than school, and has her notebook confiscated by her parents. Then she decides to get even with the others, but this goes a little too far, making them even more angry. She tries to apologize to Sport and Janie, who both reject her. Things get better in the end though..
  • Purely Aesthetic Glasses: Harriet wears them even though she doesn't need to. There's no glass in them, but she thinks they make her look smart.
  • Race Lift: In the movie, Janie is black and the Italian Dei Santis are the Chinese Hong Fats.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Subverted with Harriet's teacher.
  • Revenge: A big part of the story is saying how it actually isn't a great idea, by showing realistic consequences of it.
    • Upon reading Harriet's notebook, her friends form the Spy Catchers Club. Naturally, Harriet spies on them and feels sad because they're having fun without her and because she's the reason they're doing it.
    • Rachel Hennessey pours blue ink all over Harriet. The teacher makes Harriet apologize.
    • Harriet pinches Carrie Andrews. And then Carrie hits Marion.
    • Harriet throws things at Sport.
    • Harriet throws a pencil at Beth Ellen.
    • Harriet puts a frog in Marion's desk. Chaos ensues.
    • Harriet cuts off Laura Peters' hair.
    • Harriet asks Rachel where her father is, and then tells her that he must not love her, since he doesn't live with her.
  • Rich Bitch: Marion Hawthorne, again. Also Harriet in a slightly different way.
  • Secret Diary: And what happens when people read it.
  • Snooping Little Kid: See title.
  • Soap Punishment: Harriet's mother threatens to do this when Harriet keeps using the word "damned."
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Harriet eats tomato-and-mayonnaise sandwiches every day for lunch, drinks/eats egg creams at the cafe while on her spy route, and has cake and milk when she gets home from school. Also, Sport eats hard-boiled eggs for lunch.
  • Trailers Always Lie: In the 2010 version some trailer made it look like a romance between Skander and Harriet would happen in the movie. It is hinted at the end, but it isn't the driving force of the movie like the trailers said it would be.
  • Unusual Euphemism: FINK! FINK! FINK!
    • Harriet picked that up from her father, who works for an advertising agency; in a barrage early in the story, it's clear he's saying finks so as to avoid saying "fuckers".
  • With Friends Like These...: In the book, Harriet's notebook is found by Janie (Marion in the movie), who reads it out of sheer curiosity, shows it to the others, and then starts the Harriet hate-in when she doesn't like what she reads (probably that Harriet called her a Mad Scientist). In The Long Secret (the first of the book's true sequels), Harriet takes a very long time to solve the mystery of the notes because her best friend is responsible.
  • You Are A Tree, Charlie Brown: Harriet is an onion. At one point she practices rolling around on the floor like an onion should. Her father actually mentions Stanislavsky, then joins her on the floor.

Alternative Title(s):

Harriet The Spy