I Want To Be…. Harriet The Spy

Harriet the Spy

My upcoming book, Jennifer, Gwyneth & Me, is largely about role models. Celebrity role models, yes, but also the idea of emulating others: Is it ok to live by another person’s example? Or are we  better off blazing our own trails?

I’m always observing other people, trying to incorporate the traits I admire into my own life. Celebrities, or athletes (especially around Olympics time! Mikaela Shiffrin, I heart you.), or politicians, whoever. No one is off limits.

It started, though, with fictional characters. Before I even knew what a “role model” was, I was reading about girls  I wanted to be just like. Matilda. Cassie Logan. Stacey McGill, Treasurer.

Harriet the Spy might have been my  first “I want to be her.” She was an aspiring writer in New York. was an aspiring writer in New York! She loved eavesdropping. loved eavesdropping! (Still do.)  She was named Harriet. I.. well, my mom was (is) named Harriet! 


Except Harriet overheard much more interesting stuff than I did. She caught on to tensions  between the adults around her and, in her green composition spy notebook (a copy of which I bought for myself), reminded herself to “CHECK ON THIS.” She was tough and independent and smart.

I wanted to be her.

If you can believe it–I cannot–Harriet the Spy celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. What’s even more amazing is how well it holds up. Like this:

They walked to Eighty-sixth Street,  took the cross-town bus, and soon were whizzing along in  the subway, sitting in a line – Ole Golly, then Harriet, then Sport. Ole Golly stared straight ahead. Harriet was scribbling furiously in her notebook.

“What are you writing?” Sport asked.

“I’m taking notes on all those people who are sitting over there.”


“Aw, Sport” – Harriet was exasperated – “because I’ve seen them and I want to remember them.” She turned back  to her book and continued her notes:

MAN WITH ROLLED WHITE SOCKS, FAT LEGS. WOMAN WITH ONE CROSS-EYE AND A LONG NOSE. HORRIBLE LOOKING LITTLE BOY AND A FAT BLONDE MOTHER WHO KEEPS WIPING HIS NOSE off. Funny lady looks like a teacher and is reading. I don’t think I’d like to live where any of these people live or do the things they do. i bet that little boy is  sad and cries a lot. i bet that lady with the cross-eye looks in the mirror and just feels terrible.

This is not just smart, it’s funny. And Harriet feels as real today as she did when I was reading about her 20 years ago. I wanted to be her then, and I want to be her now. (Note to self: Pay more attention to people around you, less attention to phone.)

There’s a special edition of Harriet the Spy coming out this month. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

Who was your earliest role model? (I think I’ll turn this “I Want To Be…” into a series. The list is always growing.)


Filed under The Search

8 responses to “I Want To Be…. Harriet The Spy

  1. Harriet the Spy was one of my favorite books as a child. I also re-read it as an adult. Love it! Loved the movie too.

  2. I’ve been meaning to re-read Harriet the Spy. When I was nine, I kept a notebook like Harriet, full of “suspicious” goings-on in my very safe neighborhood.

  3. I loved Harriet the Spy! I too kept a little notebook, and like Kait above, kept track of “suspicious’ movements in what was a very safe rural village!

  4. katieleigh

    I love Harriet the Spy! Though I also ached for her because she was lonely, even though she was tough and brave and independent.

    Also, an “I Want To Be…” series sounds like a great idea!

  5. I definitely wanted to be Anne of Anne of Green Gables, minus the orphan part. I was so jealous of her kindred spirit relationship with Diana!

  6. I don’t think we really had the Harriet series here in England, or maybe that was me, but I did have a fascination with observing people and formed a Secret a Spy Club with two members!

  7. Leanne

    I loved Harriet the Spy so much and felt the same way about wanting to be her…I ALSO bought the trusty spiral green notebook! Haha! Actually I had several and filled them up so quick. I used to hide in bushes and listen to conversations and try to sneak around so I could discover people doing shady things. This brought back a ton of memories of my childhood obsession with writing everything down in green spiral notebooks. 🙂 Thanks!

  8. I loved Harriet as well — and she certainly has stood the test of time. What a great passage you quoted!

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