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.
  • And Then What?: Sport brings this up after Harriet in the newspaper talks about the club and implies that "certain other people won't want to play a certain game and drink tea". Since Harriet is no longer a problem, there's no reason for the Spy-Catching Club to exist, and there's no reason to be playing bridge and drink tea. Rachel and Marion refuse to discuss the issue, saying that people who don't want to join can leave. Everyone promptly does, except for Laura Peters and Carrie Andrews.
  • Black and Nerdy: Janie in the movie.
  • Brutal Honesty: Harriet's Fatal Flaw and why her notes in the notebook are hurtful. She tells the truth as she sees it, and she has quite an opinion. Ole Golly finally offers common sense by telling Harriet to tell "little lies" that won't hurt anyone.
  • 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: In both book and film, 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 Harrison Withers. 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.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: It takes a while, but Harriet finally gets her friends, her notebook, and her privacy back. Plus people see value in her writing in the school newspaper.
  • 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. She gets started on causing one for everyone in the Spy-Catching Club, but her parents interfere and get her to a child psychologist to find the real problem and a solution.
  • It's Personal: Both from everyone to Harriet and to everyone from Harriet.
  • Karma Houdini: Harriet's teacher Miss Elson, who bullies her as badly as (and in some cases worse than) the children. She is never caught by another adult and therefore never punished for her actions, though Harriet causing "bedlam" by putting a frog in Marion Hawthorne's desk sends her on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
  • Kick the Son of a Bitch: Harriet enacting Revenge on the meaner classmates bullying her after writing a list of what to do to each member of the Spy-Catching Club. The best part? Though it's implied that she gets suspended, her parents finally get the memo that she's acting out in response to their No Sympathy and the kids' bullying and hire a child psychologist to understand their daughter. The minute they do, they can help Harriet with her outlets:
    • Asking Rachel about her Disappeared Dad and stating that Rachel's dad doesn't love her. Rachel breaks down in tears.
    • Giving Laura Peters a Traumatic Haircut that requires the latter's head to be "practically shaved".
    • Putting a frog in Marion Hawthorne's desk, which leads to Marion going home sick and causing the teacher to nearly have a nervous breakdown.
  • Kind Hearted Cat Lover: Harrison Withers, and the elderly ladies who feed the alley cats tuna and make little "beach houses" for them.
  • 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, cat loving Harrison Withers, gets his 26 cats taken away by the Board of Health. Then she gets caught — for the first time ever — while spying. 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 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. Her parents confiscate her notebook, which makes her decide to get even with the others, but this goes a little too far and her parents take her to a psychiatrist. She tries to apologize to Sport and Janie, who both reject her. Things get better in the end though.
    • Eleanor Cameron once said the ending gave her Mood Whiplash, because she couldn't believe Harriet's total redemption via a single letter from Ole Golly.
  • Moral Event Horizon: In-universe, in the film. The other students simultaneously agree that Harriet's crossed it when her notebook entry for Sport is revealed, talking about Harriet wondering why Sport's impoverished father doesn't get a "real job". (In the book, it's her complaint that Sport's constant worry about his father makes him seem "just like a little old woman", and her vicious attack on Janie's devotion to a STEM career: "does she really think she could ever be a scientist?")
  • No Sympathy: Harriet gets none after her notebook is read, even though she's subject to severe bullying and several pranks. It was quite cathartic to read of her Kick the Son of a Bitch moments during her Revenge and for the parents to finally understand that she needs her notebook and she needs to write when confiscating the book makes her go on a Extreme Revenge Melee.
  • Not a Morning Person: Ole Golly is said to be "always horribly grumpy in the morning."
  • Only Sane Man: Ole Golly; she understands Harriet's need to be a good writer while also understanding how the world works, hence why she encourages Harriet's spying. When she finally leaves to get married, things go From A Bad To Worse for Harriet.
  • OOC Is Serious Business: After her parents confiscate her notebook, Harriet very quickly does several things she normally wouldn't do, which the text notes, which is why she immediately doesn't get caught:
    • Pinch Carrie Andrews.
    • Trip Pinky Whitehead so that he falls.
    • Throws mean looks at Sport
    • Tosses a pencil in Beth Ellen's face.
    • Her Extreme Melee Revenge which Harriet has never done before.
    • To cap it all off, throw a shoe at her father when he insists on talking to her.
  • Parents as People:
    • Harriet's parents may have a lot of money, and they had smarts in professional life (at least Harriet's dad does), but they are completely clueless as to what to do when Harriet starts getting bullied and failing school because before only Ole Golly would take care of their daughter. It takes Harriet's Extreme Melee Revenge to indicate that their methods didn't work, though fortunately a child psychologist is able to diagnose that she needs an outlet.
    • Sport's dad is a nice guy, but he has no idea how to take care of a kid or even how to manage a proper paycheck. Still Sport would rather live with him than with his Missing Mom.
  • 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, played straight with the principal Miss Whitehead who works with Harriet's parents to find a proper writing outlet for Harriet.
  • 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 and shoots him a mean look.
    • 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.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Probably how Harriet's parents negotiated with the principal during Harriet's suspension to promote her to become newspaper editor. Also how they kept the cook from quitting.
  • 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" and he tells her that it's not a "proper verb".
  • 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