It might be irresponsible to recommend Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy (1964) to youngsters today, with its sulky, unrepentant heroine who snoops on neighbours and whose notebook entries result in her losing friends. They might like it as much as I did. My copy, kept safe through house sales and moves and decades, is the only childhood book I still have, my best and most important. I’ve written inside the front cover: ‘Amy M. Liptrot, Private Spy. This book is totally brilliant!’
Growing up on a farm on the Scottish island of Orkney, I had no idea what a luncheonette and egg cream were, or cocktails and a dumb waiter, but rereading the mysterious words now brings a rush of affection for their familiar patterns. At the age of 8 or 9, back in the late ’80s, it was simply a book about a cool, brave American girl who spies on her neighbours and who wants to be an author one day. Harriet writes (usually in block capitals): ‘WHEN I GROW UP I'M GOING TO FIND OUT EVERYTHING ABOUT EVERYBODY AND PUT IT ALL IN A BOO. THE BOOK IS GOING TO BE CALLED SECRETS BY HARRIET. M. WELSCH. I WILL ALSO HAVE PHOTOGRAPHS IN IT AND MAYBE SOME MEDICAL CHARTS IF I CAN GET THEM.'
Living in a 1960s New York townhouse with both a cook and a nanny, 11-year-old Harriet is the only child of often absent parents. Her mother lunches and plays bridge (which Harriet thinks is boring) and her father ‘works in television’. Each day, after school, Harriet takes a ‘spy route’ around her neighbourhood in Eastside Manhattan, writing in her green notebook about the people she watches through windows and skylights, from fire escapes and – audaciously – by climbing into a dumb waiter.
These risky adventures are accompanied by Fitzhugh’s own illustrations of the people Harriet spies on: Agatha K. Plumber, a rich divorcée who lies in bed and talks on the phone all day; a grocery shop and the Italian family who run it; the Robinsons, a
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