This is the story of Harriet Welsh, daughter of wealthy New Yorkers and attendee of a snobbish private school, where she has banded together with two other misfits. Harriet’s particular oddity is her obssession with writing down everything, and with wanting to know everything, which leads her to spying on the lives of others. She wears jeans and high-top sneakers and a toolbelt, and does things like climbing into dumbwaiter shafts, thus setting off the gaydar of every pre-teen lesbian in the 1960’s. Harriet gets into trouble when her beloved notebook is taken by her schoolmates, and they find truthful but unkind observations about themselves.
Two remarkable things occur during the course of Harriet resolving her problems. The first is when, having been deprived of notebooks as the supposed cause of the trouble, and having fallen into a serious depression, she is sent to a psychiatrist. In the course of their session he offers Harriet a notebook. “Her fingers itched at the thought of a notebook, of a pen flying over the pages, of her thoughts, finally free to move, flowing out.” As soon as she has the notebook in her hands, Harriet forgets all about the doctor and the session, and just writes like mad. This frantic need to get back to her comfort zone is one of the realest moments in children’s literature. The psychiatrist, despite his 1960’s style non-directive play therapy (which, Harriet is right, is a little batty), is one of the few adults who helps sanity prevail. He persuades her parents and teachers to encourage her writing.
The second remarkable thing is when Harriet’s former nanny writes to her with advice, and tells her something that most adults would never say in the pages of a children’s book: “Harriet, you are going to have to do two things and you don’t like either of them: 1) You have to apologize. 2) You have to lie.”
In addition to being smart, writing-obsessed, and probably not straight, Harriet comes across as on the autism spectrum. She doesn’t realize how odd it is to suddenly drop a shared activity and start scribbling in her notebook. She is heedless of people, shouts what she’s thinking, and is very particular about her routines. (Memorably, she only eats tomato sandwiches for lunch.) Her fascination with other people’s lives comes across like a scientist documenting an alien species. Some of her best social coping skills come from the advice of her beloved nanny, who gives her very blunt and explicit rules about how to manage people.
Harriet the Spy is an amazing book, but it isn’t for everyone. The people Harriet spies on are grotesques (in the artistic sense, like da Vinci’s grotesques), and probably not what most children want to read about. Harriet’s two friends are hard to like. Well, frankly, most of the characters are hard to like. But for children who identified with Harriet, this book was a lifeline.