Friday, July 09, 2010

Harriet the Spy


Written and illustrated by Loise Fitzhugh.
Cover art by Michael Deas.
This edition published by HarperCollins.
Ages 8-13 yrs.

Image :Courtesy Amazon.

Harriet M. Welsch is a very smart 11 yr old. She has a way with words, and follows a "spy-route" everyday after school, complete with a notebook in which she jots down every little thing she observes. Even at school, she is ruthless about what she writes down about her classmates, her best friends Sport and Janie included. There is a raw truthfulness to her observations, the kind children indulge in when they are not used to guilding of any kind. She is amply encouraged by her nanny, "Ole Golly," who has realised the potential in her charge. She encourages her to observe, analyse and write down about everything that she sees or hears. The first stepping stone to becoming a great writer. Harriet does not quite look at it in those terms, but does have "becoming a writer" in her list of aspirations. Ole Golly herself is an avid reader, and quotes often and at every possible occasion.

Then one day, she leaves to get married. Harriet is, in her opinion, now old enough to take care of herself. Soon after that, disaster strikes, when Harriet loses her notebook in a game of tag. Her classmates read aloud all the uncomplimentary truths about themselves, and boycott her. Harriet reacts like a typical pre-teen by getting back at them by playing some nasty tricks, writing even more ugly things in another book, not going to school and behaving very badly at home with her worried parents, who do not understand how to handle their daughter. Her notebook is taken away at school, when the matter is noticed by the teachers. That really brings matters to a head.

"She didn't care anymore about signing her name, and she got no pleasure from the work she did, but she did it. Everything bored her. She found that when she didn't have a notebook it was hard for her to think. The thoughts came slowly, as though they had to squeeze through a tiny door to get to her, whereas when she wrote, they flowed out faster than she could put them down. She sat very stupidly with a blank mind until finally 'I feel different' came slowly into her head.''

Harriet rebels and blocks everyone out, including her parents. She is like a cornered animal, hitting out at anyone and anything. Her world has turned on its head and nothing makes sense anymore. All she wants is to get Ole Golly back and cries for her in her sleep. Her parents both work, and till now have not really been 'hands-on parents', leaving that to Ole Golly. The crisis forces them to take a good hard look at the situation.

To their credit, her parents do the right thing and decide to get help before matters escalate. They set up an appointment with a psychologist, who tells them that nothing is actually wrong with Harriet, and that she is actually an extraordinarily intelligent and articulate young lady, whose talent for observation and penmanship is to be nurtured and channelised, and not quashed.

So what happens next? How does Harriet get back all that she has lost? Does she really get it all back or does something change? What happens vis-a-vis Ole Golly? What about her friends and classmates? Does she make up for the hurtful things that she has said and done? What does she learn from the whole thing?

There are some wonderful things that are written to Harriet by Ole Golly in a letter that she sends her. Knowing that Harriet can be painfully truthful, she writes, "Little lies that make people feel better are not bad, like thanking someone for a meal they made even if you hated it, or telling a sick person they look better when they don't,.....Remember that writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends. But to yourself you must always tell the truth."

Another aspect that the writer has dealt with, which is like a sub-plot is Harriet's puzzling over 'matters of the heart' after she realises that Old Golly has a boy-friend. She tries to speak to her mother about it, but does not get a satisfactory answer.

That evening, after feeling that Old Golly was behaving very unlike herself, she wrote in her notebook, "There is more to this thing of love than meets the eye. I am going to have to think about this a great deal but I don't think it will get me anywhere. I think maybe they're all right when they say there are some things I won't know anything about until I'm older. But if it makes you like to eat all kinds of wurst (when you don't really like them) I'm not sure I'm going to like this." Very astute and very articulate for an eleven year old.

A well written book. A clear look at the way a very bright 11yr old's mind works. A very good potrayal of the value of keeping communication lines open with our children so that they feel safe coming to you with their troubles when they have any. However insignificant by the parents' standards.

I had to read the book to my daughter A for a few pages till she caught on and read the rest by herself. She evidently gave the book a lot of thought since she came to me with quite a few questions a few days after she finished reading. This one is both for the parent and for the child.

Crossposted here.


Choxbox said...

The child loved the book, haven't read it myself yet. Showing your review to her :)

Vibha said...

Wonderful review Sandhya. I am looking for books dealing with preteen issues. This book helps in that search.
Especially liked the part "writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends. But to yourself you must always tell the truth."

sandhya said...

@Choxbox: Welcome to the young reader of ST. So what did she think of it?

@Vibha: Thanks. Pre-teen issues are being dealt with here too. These books really help, don't they?

sathish said...

I wonder why the name 'Ole Golly'.

Did not realise there is also movie on this book.

sandhya said...

Yes, Satish, I know about the movie. I have written about it in my blog where this post is crossposted. I just edited it out to suit the post for ST. You could hop over to it to read about it if interested.:)
Ole Golly's real name is Catherine Golly in the book. She is with Harriet's family since Harriet is a small child. I suppose 'Ole (old) Golly' is just Harriet's name for her.

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