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Literature / Harriet the Spy

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

Harriet the Spy is a 1964 book by Louise Fitzhugh about a girl named Harriet who likes to spy on her neighbors. 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, which is notably the first theatrical film from Nickelodeon; as well as into the movie Harriet the Spy: Blog Wars in 2010. A 2D animated series, produced by Titmouse and The Jim Henson Company debuted on Apple TV+ on November 19, 2021.

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 of the 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—his mother left and took all the money. 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:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Carrie Andrews in the book was noted by Harriet to be overweight and not very attractive; in the film, she is a Beta Bitch (she is seen hanging out with Marion and Rachel)and her body bulk seems to be in her bustline to the delight of her male classmates.
    • Also Laura Peters is said to be ugly by Harriet; in the movie, Harriet refers to her as having a face that looks "pinched". Rachel Hennessy in a book illustration is portrayed as a white nerd in glasses and messy hair; the movie has her as a polished (for a 6th grader) preppie who is Asian American.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy:
    • The film features Miss Elson less, but she plays a much more neutral role instead of favoring some students over others like in the book. At the end, Harriet writes in the sixth grade newsletter as editor that Miss Elson should get a raise for what she had to endure as their teacher that year.
    • Downplayed, but in the book Janie is the one who reads Harriet's notebook to her classmates. The film gives this task to the Alpha Bitch Marion, and Janie only turns on Harriet after a mean entry about her is read.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The 1996 movie, which streamlines the story.
  • Adults Are Useless: No grown-up in this story was wise enough to see under Marion's mask. Especially Miss Elson. Arguably the only adults in the book who aren't useless are Ole Golly and the psychologist.
  • Alpha Bitch: Marion Hawthorne, with elements of Ojou and Teacher's Pet mixed in.
  • 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 drinking 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. Shy Beth Ellen even fires off a Take That!, snapping, "I don't give a hang. I never wanted to be and besides, I hate bridge."
  • Baby's First Words: In the film, Harriet initially thinks her first word was "proceed" and that she said it when she was only six months old. It turns out, she was at a more normal age and her first word was actually "cookie".
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: The rich crazy lady is Mrs. Agatha K. Plumber, who one day announces she's discovered the secret of life: to stay in bed all the time and never leave it for anything or anyone (further justifying it by claiming she's using her free time to decide on a career). Then, she's told by her doctor that she is to be bedridden for the rest of her life, and is devastated. Eventually, she is told the diagnosis was a mistake, and Mrs. Plumber ends up spending her time doing anything but staying in bed, including parties and charity work. Harriet is convinced the doctor was tricking Mrs. Plumber to get her out of bed all along.
    • In The Long Secret, Harriet has long been curious about the Shark's Tooth Inn, the slightly rundown hotel in Water Mill. She overhears a conversation between Bunny, the lounge pianist (who's also the manager) and the owner, and realizes that the owner is Mrs. Plumber. Mrs. P appears later and ends up getting a colossal "The Reason You Suck" Speech from Bunny for her control-freak attitude.
  • Beta Bitch: Rachel Hennessey; she is the plus one to Marion Hawthorne and lends her yard for the clubhouse.
    • In the movie, Carrie Andrews goes from just a fat, pimply girl who goes along with everything Rachel and Marion say, to a rather attractive girl who is a willing ally of Rachel and Marion in the beginning.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Shy, meek Beth Ellen Hansen, after spending most of the book under Marion's thumb, grows a backbone and joins most of her classmates in telling Marion off before quitting the Spy Catcher's Club. Harriet is impressed and notes that it's probably the longest sentence Beth Ellen has ever spoken. In The Long Secret "beware the nice/shy ones" is shown to be a core trait of Beth Ellen's, and a key to the "long secret" itself.
  • Black and Nerdy: Janie in the movie.
  • Bratty Food Demand: Apparently, Harriet's first sentence was "Gimme cookie!" She's not a brat, she was just being rude because she was a toddler.
  • Break the Haughty: Harriet. She's finally forced to humble herself and do something that she had never considered before in order to get her friends back: apologize—and lie.
    • One of the most delicious moments of the book is when Marion and Rachel experience this upon the dissolution of the Spy-Catchers Club.
  • 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.
    • Ole Golly's advice in case someone reads Harriet's private, truthful writings — "you have to apologize, and you have to lie" — hit home for so many readers, evoking the dichotomy between inner reality and outward seeming which writers (among others) have to cultivate, that the title of a recent biography of Louise Fitzhugh — rich girl, rebellious artist, beatnik and Lesbian — is called Sometimes You Have To Lie.
  • Children Do the Housework: Harriet's friend, Sport, lives with his single father who is an unemployed, struggling writer. The guy doesn't seem to be able to take care of himself, causing Sport to try and keep house and look after him until he finally does get a job (in the film) or finish and sell his book (in the book).
  • 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 cooking, housework and bills. In the book, Sport's dad finally sells the book he's been working on and is paid handsomely for it.
  • Consistent Clothing Style: Ole Golly always wears tweed dresses, which she refers to as her "things".
  • Crazy Cat Lady: The birdcage maker Harrison Withers. He's got 26 cats, and the health department is after him. They are implied to 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. Gender-Inverted as he is a crazy cat man.
  • Dance Party Ending: Movie only.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Harriet. Ole Golly at one point even tells her, "Don't be snarky."
  • Disappeared Dad: Rachel Hennessey (Marion Hawthorne in the film). 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. We see more of him in The Long Secret where he converses with Harriet about belief in God.
    • Also in The Long Secret with Beth Ellen Hansen's father, who simply got up and left one day and never came back (probably to get away from his Rich Bitch wife, Zeeney).
  • 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, because they'd had a German cook who made wurst practically every night, 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 a new type of wurst she'd never had before. Harriet, baffled, wonders if part of being in love is eating a lot of sausages.
  • Dumbwaiter Ride: Harriet breaks into the mansion of Agatha Plummer and gets caught hiding in her dumbwaiter.
  • 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: Invoked. Harriet deliberately stomps in the middle of the floor to mess up the cake that the family cook is making.
  • Everyone Has Standards:
    • The class turns on Harriet for writing nasty things about them. They are horrified, however, when Harriet starts to fight back, and the whole thing blows over during Harriet's suspension.
    • Sport is the only former friend of Harriet who actually gets scared when he sees her lashing out, namely when she shoots a Death Glare at him during class. He also notices when she cuts off Laura Peters's hair so that it has to be shaved. She's told him that she sneaks into a house using a dumbwaiter and knows that she could tell everyone he has to read cookbooks and keep house. When Harriet tries to go to his apartment after she's suspended, however, he's not quite ready to make up with her and refuses to invite her to dinner to celebrate his dad's newest paycheck.
  • Exclusive Clique Clubhouse: In the film, Marion makes a clubhouse that serves as the "spycatchers" headquarters. As part of a montage showing that things are getting better for Harriet and her friends, the clubhouse is shown collapsing.
  • Fair-Weather Friend: Harriet's two closest friends turn against her amazingly quickly once her notebook is read. (Then again, Harriet had written some very harsh things about them.) 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
  • Finagle's Law: Harriet goes to talk to Janie and Sport after she sees a child psychologist. Unfortunately, Janie drops a corrosive chemical by accident and refuses to talk to Harriet when the latter offers to help clean it up. Sport in the meantime is celebrating with his dad about the latter selling his book. Although Harriet is trying to make peace, his dad keeps interrupting and invites her to a celebratory dinner—which Sport immediately says, "NO!" to. It's not until the end of the book that the three become friends again.
  • Free-Range Children: In the movie, the children are only 11, yet (as in many other books from this period) they wander aimlessly around their neighborhood in New York City with little to no concern from their parents. The book may have been written in the 60s, but since the movie was clearly set in the 90s, it was a bit jarring to see. But according to Kathleen Horning, in a 2014 article on Fitzhugh and Harriet for The Horn Book, Harriet's spy route was not as widespread or as dangerous as a modern reader might think. Everything was relatively close together — and the area is still safe.
    So many critics today say Harriet the Spy is dated because no one would give a child such free rein in a city these days. But looking at Harriet's neighborhood — her real neighborhood — I realized that, yes, you would. Even now.
  • Hard Truth Aesop: Sometimes? You have to lie.
  • 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 right after she gives Laura Peters a Traumatic Haircut and get her to a child psychologist to find the real problem and a solution.
  • I Have Nothing to Say to That: Happens in a Spy-Catchers Club meeting when Rachel tells her friends about the note Harriet sent to her mother claiming that no one in the class likes Rachel and they're only there for Mrs. Hennessey's homemade cake. No one speaks up to disprove this claim (not even Marion!) and Pinky Whitehead chimes in with: "Well, it's very good cake."
  • It's Personal: Both from everyone to Harriet and to everyone from Harriet.
  • Jobless Parent Drama: Harriet's friend Sport lives with his dad, who in the book is a struggling writer determined to complete and sell his book (he does). The drama comes from the fact that Sport is explicitly said to be poor several times.
  • Karma Houdini Warranty: Harriet's teacher Miss Elson, who (perhaps unwittingly) 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. After all, it's kinda her job to keep order in class, and it looks bad that Harriet just walked away from the chaos and headed home. Later, Harriet embarrasses her as the newspaper editor by saying she lives in a "rat-hole" of an apartment and the school must not be paying her enough.
  • Kids Are Cruel: The ways in which Harriet's classmates retaliate against her for the hurtful things she said in her notebook, but especially the ways in which Harriet herself retaliates against them by hitting them in their sore spots - hiding a frog in Marion's desk knowing that Marion hates frogs; making rude comments to Rachel about her missing father; and so on.
    • Some of the things Harriet writes about her classmates in her notebook fall under this too, such as hoping to kick some of them for no reason, bashing Janie's dream of being a scientist, and calling Sport a "little old woman" for constantly worrying about his father. The film makes a few even worse, like shaming Sport for being poor and wondering why Sport's writer father doesn't get a "real job", and suggesting The Boy with the Purple Socks should hang himself; in the book, she only says he is boring.
  • Kind Hearted Cat Lover: Harrison Withers, and the elderly ladies who feed the alley cats tuna and make little "beach houses" for them.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Harriet's persons take a hamfisted approach on hearing she's being bullied. They show No Sympathy about her notebook, confiscate it when she starts tuning out schoolwork, and leave it in the cook's hands. After a day of this, Harriet plans Extreme Mêlée Revenge at school. Her mother is interrupted at a leisurely trip to the hairdresser's to find out her daughter put a frog in Marion's desk and cut off a huge chunk of Laura Peters's hair so that it has to be shaved. This starts a chain of stress when Mrs. Welsch arrives home and finds the cook screaming and threatening to quit, rightly pointing out it's not her job to mind Harriet; after Mrs. Welsch offers a raise to make her stay, she tries to talk to Harriet, who lies in bed. Her dad comes home angry about the five-dollar raise and the ice bucket not being filled before he hears about what his daughter did, and he gets Harriet's shoe in his face when he demands that she stop pretending to sleep. On top of that, it's implied Harriet got suspended for her actions given her parents say she's not going to school for a few days.
  • Late to the Realization: While spying on her classmates during Spy Catcher Club meetings, it takes Harriet a while to realize that she is the "her" they keep talking about. It's obvious she's never been excluded or targeted before, and she's horrified when she realizes "they have been talking among themselves."
  • 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 super-intelligent — and persecuted by her status-conscious parents for not being a "lady" — and an Adorkable boy named Sport, a witty and nurturing nanny named Golly who fills in her for her caring but busy rich parents, and is also rich. But once Golly 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. A cascade of accidents and tragedies leave her an antisocial outcast, and her parents end up taking her to a psychologist (almost unheard-of in those days for a child, and very stigmatizing; it meant that you were "crazy", and many parents would not think of doing such a thing because mental health professionals "always blame the parents"). 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", her factual report on his "dressing funny" due to poverty, and her vicious attack on Janie's devotion to a STEM career: "Who does Janie Gibbs think she's kidding? Does she really think she could ever be a scientist?")
  • Mysterious Purple: There's a boy in Harriet's class that she and everyone else refers to as "The Boy With the Purple Socks". She complains that he is so boring that she never bothered to remember his name and thinks that the only thing noteworthy about him are his socks. It's later revealed that no one in their class actually knows his real name. It's Peter.
  • 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 Pay Evil unto Evil 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 Mêlée Revenge.
  • Not a Morning Person: Ole Golly is said to be "always horribly grumpy in the morning."
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Harriet's reaction when everyone else reads her notebook.
    • Also her reaction when she heads home from a night at the theaters past her curfew, and is greeted by her parents wondering where she is at her nanny's doorstep.
    • Sport's reaction when Harriet tosses a ball of paper at his ear and shoots a Death Glare at him. He has the same reaction when she tries to apologize at his apartment later.
  • Ojou: Marion thinks of herself as one, and doesn't take it well when she realizes that many of her classmates don't see her that way. For example, she is stunned when a (very slim) majority of the class votes for her to lose her post as editor of the sixth grade page of the school newspaper to Harriet and Beth Ellen. Miss Elson even tells Marion afterward, "Don't count your eggs until they vote for you."
  • 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 Bad to Worse for Harriet.
  • O.O.C. 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 doesn't immediately get caught (see below).
  • 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 — her mom seems intelligent (she's good at math) but just a socialite), 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 Mêlée 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.
  • Person with the Clothing: There’s a kid in Harriet’s class that she refers to as “The Boy in Purple Sock” because she never bothered to learn his real name. It’s eventually revealed that the rest of the class doesn’t know his name either.
  • Pilot: A rare example in literature. The chapter detailing Harriet's first day at school reiterates a lot of things we already know. This is because it was the original first chapter that Louise Fitzhugh sent to her agent. Her agent asked several questions about the characters, which Fitzhugh answered in the form of additional chapters that took place before the original first chapter. This explains why the book structure is lopsided, with Book One being much longer than the other two, and why the Inciting Incident takes place more than halfway through the book.
  • Playing a Tree: 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.
  • 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.
  • Reactive Continuous Scream: In the Nickelodeon film, this happens between Harriet, Agatha K. Plummer, and Plummer's maid, when Harriet is discovered by Plummer's maid in the dumbwaiter of her mansion.
  • 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.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: In the film; Harriet gives an absolutely soul-crushing one to Marion, revealing that all the stories she tells about doing special fancy things with her father are lies and that she hasn't seen him in years. She then tells her that it's because he doesn't love her. She may be the Alpha Bitch of the film, but the look on her face afterwards makes you want to give her a big hug.
    • In the book, it's less of a speech and the victim is Rachel instead of Marion, but the outcome is the same.
    • The book does have a different incident in which Harriet gives Rachel a different Reason You Suck Speech after Rachel confronts her at the park. It ends with Harriet getting in Rachel's face and yelling that the class had better stop bullying her or everyone will "get it." Rachel is taken aback at first but quickly recovers and threatens Harriet back, saying that she and the rest of the class have "a plan" to get her.
  • 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. Initially terrified — they have been talking among themselves! — 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. At one point she seriously believes they might kill her.
    • Rachel Hennessey pours blue ink all over Harriet. The teacher thinks (or pretends to think) it was an accident and scolds Harriet for not accepting Rachel's fake apology.
    • Harriet pinches Carrie Andrews. And then Carrie hits Marion (assuming Marion was the one who pinched her because Marion is notorious for it).
    • 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.
    • Throwing a shoe at her dad when he insists on talking to her counts as well.
    • As does purposely ruining a cake the family cook is baking by stomping the floor, causing the cake to fall.
  • 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 newspaper editor. Also how they kept the cook from quitting after Harriet made the cake fall.
  • Secret Diary: And what happens when people read it.
  • Shaped Like Itself: "That afternoon, the rain beat like a spring rain against the windows of the math class ..."
  • Shrinking Violet: Beth Ellen Hansen, so much that all it takes is a dirty look from Marion to frighten her into submission when the class is discussing their Christmas pageant. She becomes less of one late in the book when she finally stands up to Marion at a Spy-Catcher's Club meeting.
  • 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 creamsnote  at the cafe while on her spy route, and has cake and milk when she gets home from school. In fact, her classmates use her love of tomato sandwiches against her later by ridiculing her for eating them and then by actually stealing her lunch. Also, Sport eats hard-boiled eggs for lunch, but that's all he can afford.
  • 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.
  • Traumatic Haircut: Harriet cuts off a chunk of Laura Peters's hair after sneaking a frog into Marion Hawthorne's desk. Laura doesn't even notice, though Sport does. Harriet's mother later complains that thanks to Harriet, Laura's head will have to "practically be shaved".
  • 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 friend Beth Ellen is the one who's been leaving the notes.

Alternative Title(s): Harriet The Spy