Monday, January 4, 2010

Kiddy lit

I started off the 2010 reading list in a rather odd fashion -- a Harriet the Spy book.  Harriet the Spy is a character created by Louise Fitzhugh back in the 1960s.  The books target a 'tween demographic, junior high school girls, so I missed them.  I'm part of the Trixie Belden and Ginny Gordon generation.  By the time Harriet hit the bookshelves, my reading tastes had become a tad more adult, I'd discovered science fiction, given up on girl detectives, and was into more  interesting characters, e.g., Valentine Michael Smith

So why did I find myself becoming acquainted with Harriet the Spy at this late date?  Because I'd run out of stuff to read, and The Long Secret was about the only book in the Younger Daughter's house that (a) I hadn't read, and (b) she wouldn't object if I took it with me.  It had been mixed in with a box of books she'd bought at a yard sale, and she didn't care if she ever saw it again.  I don't know if she'd read any of the Harriet books back when she was in the target age group; I do know she's not a fan now.  She read it and pronounced it, to put it mildly, lame.  She couldn't figure out why anyone would be interested in reading about two rich kids spending the summer in Montauk, and for sure she didn't get why anyone would be interested in anything Harriet did. 

After reading the book, I tend to agree.  The book was a lot better than I expected -- more socially aware than any of the Trixie Beldens and Ginny Gordon adventures had ever been -- but nonetheless baffling in its appeal.  I know the Harriet the Spy books were quite popular for awhile in the '60s and '70s.  What I don't get is why.  Harriet's both annoying and clueless.  She spends an inordinate amount of time spying on other people, peeping in windows, asking unbelievably rude questions, and being generally obnoxious and (in a word) stupid.  She may be only 11, but she's already as self-centered and completely oblivious to anything that does not relate directly to herself as any adolescent.

Tammi's criticism about the lifestyles of the rich and idle was accurate, too.  Harriet's own family seems typically 1960s nuclear with no domestic help, but her friend Beth Ellen gets driven around by a chauffeur and lives in a household that includes both a maid and a cook.  And Harriet is a summer person in Montauk -- her family lives in New York City but owns waterfront property in a resort community.  I've never been to Montauk, but something tells me it's not the potato farming part of Long Island. 

On the plus side, The Long Secret does a nice job of emphasizing that it's possible for women to have careers, of questioning organized religion (as in you don't need to go to church to be a good person and that a person's individual beliefs are their own business and no one else's), and of supporting civil rights and social activism, and manages to do so without getting preachy or making the messages too obvious.  Harriet's friend Janie wants to be a scientist, gets super-excited when she finds an intact swan skeleton, and patiently explains menstruation to Harriet and Beth Ellen (Harriet's best friend during the summer, although they apparently never see each other during the school year) while expressing her exasperation over adults who get squeamish about explaining basic biological facts.  I don't recall Trixie Belden ever bemoaning the fact she'd gotten her period or talking about possible careers for women, so Harriet was a distinct step forward in 'tween fiction.  It's just a shame that Harriet herself is so unlikable.


  1. I was born in 1961, and I LOVED Harriet the Spy. For me, I think it was because there were so few female characters that were at all interesting. It seemed like only the boys in all the books we read got to do the adventures and the girls were just interested in parties, clothes, and boys -- none of which interested me in the least!

    I never read The Long Secret. Thanks for the review -- maybe I'll have to look up my old friend Harriet again!

  2. when I was a little girl I was into 3 authors..william farley (black stallion series) h. allan smith (rhubarb and other books)and edgar rice bourough...tarzan books..and his sci-fi books were great..

  3. Lets see, I was born in 1943, hell I don't recall what my favorite reading was before twenty.

    But through my 20's and 30's James Michener was a favorite.

  4. In my advanced age I'm into pretty heavy stuff and not much into the escape of fiction, I find non fiction more than strange enough for me.


My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.