The children’s book “Harriet the Spy” by Louise Fitzhugh shaped my life and career. Before I read these zany adventures of a child spy at 8-years-old, I hadn’t thought about being a writer. Harriet changed that.
In the book, Harriet keeps a secret notebook where she jots down her observations about the people she spies on, namely her parents, classmates, and neighbors. She listens to their conversations, watches them in their most vulnerable moments, and records whatever interests her. One entry goes like this: “I bet that lady with the cross-eye looks in the mirror and feels just terrible.”
Harriet’s musings inspired me to do some of my own spying and keep my own notebooks. Just as her nanny says in the book, you have to learn everything you can about people in order to be a writer. I took this as gospel, and to this day I still keep my observations about things in some sort of written format. Right now, that’s my blog. (In 2010, the movie “Harriet the Spy: Blog Wars” was released.) Notebooks and diaries have become some people’s blogs.
For years, I copied Harriet by using black sketchbooks for all of my journal writing. I made notes about boys, my parents, my teachers, and anything that came to mind. And, just like Harriet, I had spy route. I wasn’t as brave as Harriet, though. She got famously close to her subjects, sometimes finding a way into people’s homes. I rode my bicycle around the neighborhood, picking up scraps of paper and trying to piece them together as stories. I wrote down volumes of observations. Looking back, some were pretty insightful for a kid.
I must have read the book a hundred times. Each time, I found something of personal value, something that supported my writer identity. For one thing, Harriet didn’t care about what she looked like. She had her own way of dressing, fitting for a spy. An ancient pair of blue jeans, a belt with hooks to carry her spy tools, notebooks, and pens, and an old sweatshirt and sneakers. I donned a similar outfit.
One scene I remember vividly from the book is of Harriet sitting in a coffee shop. With her back turned, she listens to what people are saying and tries to guess what they look like. I’ve done the same thing. Sometimes my guesses are right.
Harriet is a bit of a misfit, an eccentric, as many famous writers have been throughout history. For example, she will eat only one thing–tomato sandwiches. I tried them. They aren’t as good as tuna.
I’m sure many other readers have been inspired to keep their own notebooks, but I still think of Harriet’s character as being just for me. And today, I am a writer.