I was in second grade the first time I read Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. I was seven and already sure that I wanted to be a writer (I’m still in touch with my second grade teacher, who can vouch for my literary ambitions at that age) and I identified more with Harriet than with any character I’d ever encountered in a book. On the second page Harriet tells her friend Sport, “Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.” In Harriet the Spy, the imagination is a powerful tool, writing is a noble endeavor, and observing other people (and listening to their dialogue) is a useful pursuit. I felt vindicated: Harriet cared about everything I cared about. Harriet’s best friend was her notebook. I felt the same way.
I’m sure that I got a lot of my ideas about what it meant to be a writer from Harriet. To be a writer was to be a spy. (“I’m a good spy, too,” says Harriet. “I’ve never been caught.”) I also learned that to be a writer was to be broke. Sport’s father is a writer, and Harriet notes (her notes are always in all-caps):
SPORT’S HOUSE SMELLS LIKE OLD LAUNDRY, AND IT’S NOISY AND KIND OF POOR-LOOKING… WHAT MAKES PEOPLE POOR OR RICH? ARE RICH PEOPLE EVER GOING TO GROW UP TO BE WRITERS OR ARE ALL WRITERS LIKE MR. ROQUE WITH NO MONEY? MY FATHER IS ALWAYS SAYING STARVINGARTIST OR STARVINGWRITER. MAYBE I’D BETTER REDUCE.
I remember deciding that I would have some kind of paying career while I wrote “on the side.” I thought that maybe I could write advertisements (I liked to make up commercial jingles). When I grew up, I really did end up working as a copywriter for advertising agencies. I still freelance for ad agencies and teach—I don’t expect to make a living just by writing fiction. It’s true that most writers are broke. And very few are lucky enough to get their books published.
But I like to think that Harriet grows up to be a successful writer, one whose books inspire the sort of evangelical readers that Louise Fitzhugh has. Rereading Harriet the Spy again as an adult, I’m struck by the wry voice: Fitzhugh’s prose is a delight. The book is just as appealing to me now, at age thirty-nine, as it was when I was seven.