Last week, Salon published a post called "Harriet the Spy: The most unlikeable hero in children's lit." As a Harriet lover, I was a little taken aback by the title: how could Harriet, super-sleuth and budding journalist, possibly be unlikeable? I have fond memories of reading Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy when I was in fourth grade and thinking that Harriet was the coolest girl I'd ever read about. She lived in New York City, was allowed to roam freely after school to do her spy work, and (most importantly) wrote down everything in her composition notebook! (Did anyone else buy a composition notebook after reading this book? I did!)
But then after I read the article, I realized that the writer has a point: Harriet is not particularly nice in what she writes about other people. She criticizes their appearances, invades their privacy, and writes somewhat unfair and bullying comments about them. I even started to wonder what Harriet would be like if she had the internet at her disposal -- would she have an anonymous blog where she posted her mean thoughts and comments, or maybe even participate in cyber bullying on Facebook or Instagram?
Ultimately I don't think that Harriet would do those things, and that's because of her bewilderment when she realizes how much she has hurt people through the things written in her notebook. Harriet's thoughts and observations are pretty normal for an 11-year-old girl, but she doesn't understand the consequences of creating a record of those thoughts until it's too late and her notebook has been stolen.
When I read this book for the first time, I remember thinking differently about the written word, almost as if writing was a bigger deal than I originally thought. Fourth graders may not realize it completely, but a huge takeaway from Harriet the Spy is really about the power and gravity of words and what you do with them.
So, is Harriet really the most unlikeable hero? If I were on the receiving end of her snarky commentary, I might think so. But there's something valuable for kids in observing Harriet's mistakes -- she's only human, and just as curious as most kids her age. Kids also relate to being on the receiving end of mean comments. Seeing the distress and consequences that Harriet faces after her notes are revealed is probably comforting to kids who are used to only seeing one side (the mean side) of a bully, and perhaps develops the feeling of camaraderie that so many kids have felt for Harriet over the years!