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Louise Fitzhugh Transcript
It’s the birthday this week of Louise Fitzhugh, the author of one of the breakthrough books for children of the 1960s, Harriet the Spy. Harriet Welsch is an eleven-year-old budding writer, who makes her rounds every day after school, eavesdropping on people in her neighborhood, like the Italian De Santi Family who runs a local store, the Robinsons who do little else but buy and flaunt their material possessions, and Mr. Harrison Withers who lives alone with his flock of twenty-six cats, all named after famous people. If you’ve ever sat in a restaurant and listened to what was being said in the next booth, you know why Harriet is so fascinated. Dramas play themselves out all the time in the conversations and actions of real people, and if you want to write, you’re forever on the alert for this material. You can’t make everything up. And Harriet knows this, because her bookish, no-nonsense nanny, Old Golly, has seen that creative spark in Harriet and has given her the right advice to nurture it: keep your thoughts and observations in a journal. But what Harriet hasn’t learned is a measure of generosity about people. She’s blunt, judgmental, and often mean-spirited in her writings about others. And these qualities come back to haunt her when her friends discover one of her notebooks and read what she’s been writing about them.
There’s a strong tradition in American children’s books that runs from Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn right up to Harriet, in which kids spy on the adult world, commenting on its foibles and failings and foolishness. But it was also a trait that began early in Fitzhugh’s own life, growing up in a wealthy household in Memphis in the 1930s and 40s, in which she found herself, like Harriet, unhappily, the odd one out because of her rejection of the racial prejudice she saw all around her. As a young woman, she studied art in New York and abroad and was, at first, an illustrator, before she was discovered by the noted children’s book editor, Ursula Nordstron, who saw the diamond in the then rough prose of Fitzhugh’s first draft of this novel. Sadly, after only a handful of picture books and her four novels, Fitzhugh died suddenly of a brain aneurysm at the age of 46.
The critics were not enthusiastic about Harriet the Spy. They found the lonely, rude, opinionated Harriet an unsympathetic heroine. But kids, on the other hand, have cherished this book, since it is as quick and sharp and unsparing as most of them are at eleven. I was surprised to find that our family copy of the book was carefully annotated by our daughter who read it in fifth grade. And along with “funny” and ‘neat” on every other page she also wrote, next to a passage on nearly every page, the word, “true.”