Thursday, February 15, 2007

Harriet the Spy

I think my opinions about children and reading are so strong because so many books I read when I was a kid still hold tremendous power over me. I picked up a copy of Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy at the bookstore the other day and skimmed through it and found that I remembered almost every single line. If you haven't read it, it's about an eleven-year-old girl (a tomboy!) who spies on people and keeps a notebook because she wants to be a writer when she grows up. In the end her friends find the notebook and discover all the honest but pretty unkind things she was thinking and writing about them, and she has to figure out how to stay friends with them while staying true to her "art," so to speak. It's a pretty incredible book. It was written in 1964, which blows me away.

Tonight I was discussing the death of Elvis with my nine-year-old son, talking about his (Elvis's!) drug abuse and how hard it was to understand that someone so talented and successful could be so sad. And O. said, Well, when you're that rich and famous it must really hard to know if people like you for yourself, or because you're rich and famous. Which is of course terribly, and even obviously, true, but this is a kid who is obsessed with Tamagotchis and squeezing as much computer time out of me as he can, to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. I was actually startled that this was something he'd put some thought into, which of course he had.

And this is all to point out how easy it is to underestimate children. If I were writing a book for O., I doubt I'd write something as smart and complicated and true as Harriet the Spy. I don't think Louise Fitzhugh ever had children, and maybe that's part of it. Maybe there's something about being a parent that makes you focus on the homework, the violin practice, and the fingernails to the exclusion of what's going on behind the scenes.

Anyway, I'm grateful there are some writers out there who can write for children without forgetting what complex and thoughtful people they were too, when they were kids.

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