Guest post – Laura Goodin

Laura gave me this a while ago, and my life intervened. It is, thankfully, well worth the wait.

Thrillingly Obnoxious: Agency, Empathy, and Enlightenment in Harriet the Spy

by Laura E. Goodin, Ph.D. W. Aust.

In 1964, Harriet the Spy, by socially unconventional author Louise Fitzhugh (Horning 2005), was published to mixed reactions (Morris 2017). It was not the thought of a powerful girl that caused the stir; after all, the previous year Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, with its heroic protagonist Meg Murry, had taken out the Newbery Award (ALSC n.d.). No, the controversy raged around the book’s moral ambiguity: “To a world in which children’s literature consisted of fantasies about stuffed rabbits and saccharine fictions of loving families, Harriet barged in with her unfeminine habits, cruel classmates, rich but neglectful parents, shallow neighbors, and worst of all, her loving governess who advises deceit” (Bernstein 2001, p.26). One reviewer wrote at the time, “Many adult readers appreciating the sophistication of the book will find it funny and penetrating. Children, however, do not enjoy cynicism. I doubt its appeal to many of them” (Viguers 1965, n.p.). In the ensuing 50 years, the book has remained continuously in print (Lodge 2014, n.p.), its sly subversiveness being one of its greatest attractions for the children who continue to read it avidly.

While a number of researchers have asserted that Fitzhugh’s homosexuality motivated her specifically to depict Harriet in coded ways (such as what was then considered her “tomboyish” dress sense) as a young lesbian (Horning 2005; Bernstein 2001), others have contended that Fitzhugh intended her to stand for all girls who push the boundaries of childhood in the agency that they claim, all children who experience social isolation, and all people alienated from their own individuality in a world that has begun to move too fast.

Since the book’s publication, options for girls seeking portrayals of a wide variety of ways of being in the books they read have expanded dramatically, but in 1964 Harriet was entirely, alarmingly conspicuous. Meek, obedient children thrilled to her obnoxious behavior (Horning 2005), her deviousness as a manifestation of the trickster archetype (Paul 1989), and her emotional self-sufficiency (Seo 2014). Harriet is a child who makes her own decisions and routinely disregards both societal norms and parental authority, exhibiting what Wolf (1975) characterizes as “extreme individualism”. She trespasses and invades adults’ privacy on her spy route and consciously rebels against rules of social decorum both at home and with her peers and teachers. She has fully formed plans for her career path as both a writer and a spy: plans that ignore accepted gender roles and traditional career tracks such as university education or corporate workplaces. Bernstein (2001, p.26) notes that in portraying Harriet’s most transgressive behavior, her spying, “Fitzhugh re-invents spying as a child’s quest to observe varied examples of adulthood as research toward choosing her own path”. Whereas child characters’ transgressions are often in opposition to an authority figure (such as Max’s unruly rumpus in Maurice Sendak’s 1963 picture book Where the Wild Things Are), Harriet’s choices are her own, made within her own frame of reference and to accomplish her own ends. The fact that these choices transgress against authority is an irrelevance to her; indeed, she often seems baffled at her parents’ and teachers’ objections to them. Harriet offers young readers a model of the powerful, self-possessed child and, by extension, the powerful individual, regardless of age.

When Harriet does engage with the people around her, she lacks the suave social graces of her parents and classmates. While she observes the hypocrisy and superficiality of the people on her spy route with a keen and critical detachment, she is less skilled at understanding and moving comfortably within her own social networks (Bernstein 2001, p.26). The very individualism that impels her to learn, grow, and achieve without regard for others’ opinions eventually turns even her closest friends against her. In the moment of the book most vilified by critics (Bernstein 2001; Paul 1989), her beloved governess urges her to lie in order to win back their friendship. Seo (2014) asserts that both the lying and the insincere apology that accompanies it show that Harriet has learned nothing and will continue to heedlessly and remorselessly hurt the people around her. In contrast, Paul (1989) writes, “As a feminist writer, Harriet learns to reconstruct herself, to adapt. She resolves the splits – between life and art, between truth and lying, and between gossip and fiction – that destroy many women writers.” Bernstein (2001, p.26) also takes a more nuanced view, writing that “the book encourages the reader to mimic one particular, important aspect of Harriet’s growth: her learning to empathize. Harriet’s growing empathy demands reciprocation from the reader”. Harriet lies not to make things easier for herself, but because she has finally begun to understand, and to mitigate, the impact of her actions on the people around her. As Thus Harriet also models not just agency, but a growing awareness of its consequences.

Both Harriet’s observations of the people on her spy route and the disruptions in her own life show her that agency is in itself not enough to guarantee happiness. Wolf (1975, pp.120-121) writes, “The image which arises is one of a fast-paced, materialistic, complex society in which individuals are isolated in their own private worlds.” As the lives of her surveillance subjects unfold before her, she sees how they deal with their unhappiness and alienation: some in productive ways, like making art and giving food to the poor, and some in unproductive ways, such as conspicuous consumption and malingering. She finds herself unexpectedly dismayed at the despair one of her subjects feels when the authorities deprive him of his beloved cats, and feels a strange exultation at his eventual triumph:

She leaned over the parapet again to study the problem at length. Harrison Withers was humming away, even tapping his foot as he worked. She watched, puzzled, until suddenly he looked up in the direction of he kitchen door. Then she saw it. Into the room, as though he owned it, to the accompaniment of loud cooing and baby talk from Harrison Withers walked the tiniest cat Harriet had ever seen. It was a funny-looking little black-and-white kitten which had a mustache which made it look as though it were sneering It stopped, looked at Harrison Withers as though he were a curiosity, and then walked disdainfully across the room. Harrison Withers watched in adoration. Harriet leaned back and wrote:


And, for some reason, as she walked home Harriet felt unaccountably happy (Fitzhugh 1964, pp.270-271).

Harriet learns by watching her subjects that what one chooses is as important as the act of choosing itself. In the same way, readers learn by watching Harriet.

While there is no denying that Fitzhugh’s depiction of Harriet has been of immense value in giving lesbian and bisexual girls a model for ways to be true to oneself in the face of discrimination and loneliness (Horning 2005; Bernstein 2001), to insist that Fitzhugh was thinking only of such girls is to limit the value of her writing and the scope of her artistic vision. Harriet the Spy has provided a multitude of children with both a manual and a manifesto for claiming, managing, and directing their own agency as they negotiate childhood and emerge into adulthood.


Association for Library Service to Children (ALSCA) n.d. Newbery Medal Winners, 1922-Present. Viewed at

Bernstein, R 2001. “Too Realistic” and “Too Distorted”: The Attack on Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy and the Gaze of the Queer Child. Critical Matrix (12:1-2), p.26.

Fitzhugh, L 1964. Harriet the Spy. Dell Publishing Company, New York.

Horning, K T 2005. On Spies and Purple Socks and Such. Hornbook, January. Viewed at

Lodge, S 2014. Harriet the Spy Celebrates 50 Years of Sleuthing. Publishers Weekly, 20 February. Viewed at

Morris, B J (2017). Before Harriet Blogged: Notes on Girls with Notebooks. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 38(3), pp.47-67.

Paul, L 1989. The Feminist Writer as Heroine in Harriet the Spy. The Lion and the Unicorn, 13(1), pp.67-73.

Sendak, M (1963). Where the Wild Things Are. Harper & Row, New York.

Seo, G 2014. Harriet and Me. Horn Book, April 10. Viewed at

Viguers, R H 1965. On Spies and Applesauce and Such. Horn Book, February 7. Viewed at

Wolf, V L 1975. Harriet the Spy: Milestone, Masterpiece? Children’s Literature, 4, pp.120-126.

Laura E. Goodin has been writing professionally for over 30 years. Her novels are available through Odyssey Books (; her stories have appeared in numerous print and online publications; and her scripts, libretti, and poetry have been performed internationally. She holds a Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Western Australia, and attended the 2007 Clarion South Workshop. She can be found at

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