Unapologetically Harriet, the Misfit Spy Brash, disheveled and brutally honest, Harriet the Spy sees too much, says too much and never quite fits in — which is precisely why she strikes a chord with so many fans.

Unapologetically Harriet, the Misfit Spy

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It's every mother's advice. If you don't have anything nice to say don't say anything at all. We're about to meet a fictional 11-year-old who refuses to follow that advice.

Unidentified Woman #1: Ms. Whitehead has buck teeth, thin hair, feet like skis, and a very long hanging stomach.

MONTAGNE: Ouch. That's Harriet the Spy, reading from her precious spy notebook. She watches her friends and neighbors and writes about them with brutal honesty. When the novel "Harriet the Spy" came out in the early 1960s, it delighted young readers and scandalized some adults. Of course, now the book is a classic and Harriet is still indomitable.

Neva Grant has the latest in our series In Character.

NEVA GRANT: This may not be a fair comparison, but by 1964 there were two girl sleuths on American bookshelves. Nancy Drew…

Unidentified Woman #2: (Reading) Oh, my goodness, I hope Susan is not seriously hurt.

GRANT: And Harriet M. Welsch…

Unidentified Woman #1: (Reading) My mother is always saying Pinky Whitehead's whole problem is his mother. Does his mother hate him? If I had him I'd hate him.

GRANT: The gulf between Harriet and Nancy tells us how children's books — and children — were changing in the 1960s. Nancy, polite and poised as a ballerina - Harriet, rude and disheveled, not even a hairband to keep her floppy bangs in place. And she's full of herself.

Unidentified Woman #1: I will be the best spy there ever was and I will know everything. Everything.

GRANT: She wants to be a writer, too, so she spies, not to solve mysteries, but for the sheer delinquent joy of it. She even wears a special spy uniform, black glasses without the lenses, a tool belt with a pouch for her notebook, jeans and a sweatshirt. Goodbye, Nancy Drew.

(Soundbite of bus)

Hello, Manhattan. We're on the Upper East Side, where Harriet habitually peers into the windows of her neighbors. If we could read over her shoulder, we'd see this entry about the Robinsons, a wealthy couple who never seem to get out of their chairs…

Unidentified Woman #1: If they had a baby it would laugh all the time at them, so it's a good thing they don't. Also it might not be perfect, and then they might kill it. I'm glad I'm not perfect.

Ms. ANITA SILVEY (Author, 100 Best Books for Children): Oh, this book was so controversial when it came out. First of all, Harriet's a very flawed character.

GRANT: Children's book expert Anita Silvey says some critics hated Harriet the Spy when it came out in the '60s. Some schools even banned it. They said Harriet saw too much, said too much. She threw temper tantrums and even had to see a psychiatrist.

Ms. SILVEY: Of course, when you read it from the point of view of a child you see immediately why Harriet is just pretty exciting. She's really a young woman with a really great sense of herself. I mean, there's a moment in the book when Harries says, I love myself.

GRANT: And young readers loved Harriet. In the '60s and '70s, girls formed Harriet the Spy clubs. They dressed up like her and spied on their parents at parties. And what about today? Harriet still has young fans.

Here are two of them at the private Chapin School for girls. The type of school Harriet herself attended in Upper Manhattan.

Ms. SOSKIA DEMUNK KAISER(ph) (Chapin School): Well, I'm the same age as Harriet. I'm 11. I don't really have any friends exactly like her. I would kind of want to, because it'd spice things up.

Ms. CAROLINE SAMBUCCO(ph) (Chapin School): I, more than having a friend like her, I would want to more want to be Harriet, because she really knows a lot about the world and I want to be a writer when I grow up, too.

GRANT: That was Soskia Demunk Kaiser and Caroline Sambucco. And let's remember that these days these girls can read about all kinds of kids, facing all kinds of real problems. Back in the '60s the pickins where slimmer.

Kathleen Horning was a kid then.

Ms. KATHLEEN HORNING (Director, Cooperative Children's Book Center): There was a whole genre, for example, the tomboy story where a girl rebels in that way, but then at the end everything is wonderful because she really is a girl and she gets very feminine and tamed and grows long hair.

GRANT: Horning grew up in Iowa. She's now a librarian in Wisconsin. She was a tomboy who didn't want to reform. And later on, she says, she realized she was a lesbian. What does that have to do with Harriet the Spy? A lot, says Horning. The book's author Louise Fitzhugh, was also gay, and although Harriet's sexuality is never mentioned, her boy's clothes and bravado sent a message to some kids who felt different and didn't know why.

Ms. HORNING: I have just talked to so many adults, lesbians, who felt the same way about Harriet. Particularly, I think, if you were growing up in the '60s where you really just didn't have any other people like you, Harriet was it. And the book told us, those of us who identified with her because we felt like outsiders, that we could be ourselves and survive.

Children's book expert Anita Silvey says for any child struggling with any kind of difference, Harriet is a liberator.

Ms. SILVEY: She gives us permission, you know, not to be one of those bridge players sitting around the table, acting like your mom.

Unidentified Woman #1: I love myself.

Ms. SILVEY: And that's a pretty powerful message to give to children in any decade at any period of time.

GRANT: Midway through Harriet the Spy, two thinks happen that shake Harriet's well-ordered world. Her beloved nanny Ole Golly moves away and Harriet learns what it is to lose someone. And then she loses the worst thing imaginable, her spy notebook. Her classmates steal it and read the mean things she wrote, even about her best friends. Like this…

Unidentified Woman #1: The reason Sport dresses so funny is that his father won't buy him anything to wear, because his mother has all the money.

GRANT: All her classmates come together to ostracize her.

Unidentified Woman #1: Everybody hates me.

GRANT: Then Harriet gets a letter from Ole Golly, the wise nanny who moved away.

Unidentified Woman #3: Dear Harriet, I've been thinking about you.

GRANT: She tells Harriet something that all children need to learn: Sometimes, you have to lie.

Unidentified Woman #3: Otherwise you are going to lose a friend. Little lies that make people feel better are not bad, like thanking someone for a meal they made even if you hated it. But to yourself, you must always tell the truth.

GRANT: Eventually, Harriet does apologize to her classmates, even though she may still believe the things she wrote about them.

Anita Silvey.

Ms. SILVEY: She doesn't become not Harriet at the end. She just becomes a little wiser Harriet - that she can, in fact, tell a lie so that she makes social situations a little easier. But you don't get the sense that she's lost any of her edge or any of her ability to observe and look at things.

GRANT: At the end of the book, Harriet plans to keep spying and writing. Silvey says by staying the same, Harriet helped change children's literature. She helped bring it to life, real life. After Harriet, a fresh crop of young rebels came along, characters who were flawed or who didn't fit in, and who stayed that way to the last page.

Neva Grant, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And you can nominate your favorite character at npr.org/incharacter.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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