Harriet the Spy, Tomato Sandwiches, and Breaking Routines

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Now that gyms are closed, my workout plan hinges on local little free libraries. I take daily walks through my neighborhood using a route that encompasses three little free libraries. During my walks, I stop and look through the door of each library, hoping to find a hidden gem among the tattered board books, sticky mass market paperbacks, and Windows 97 manuals. One book looked more and more appealing each time I walked past. The book is a yellowed, curled paperback copy of Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.

harriet the spyI hadn’t read this book since I was in the 6th grade, a year that I checked it out of the school library about once a month. As an adult, every time I saw this book, I told myself the following: I don’t have time to read this, I should be reading grown-up books, there is no way that Harriet will be as good as I remember, I don’t like how she called her teacher’s apartment a “rat-trap,” I want a tomato sandwich.  I also loath movie tie-in covers and mine shows Michelle Trachtenberg as Harriet and Rosie O’Donnell as Ole Golly. I refused to see this movie because I had such a vivid mental picture of everything in the book.

With the recent virus-induced situation, I have more time to read and craved an old favorite. Disregarding the irritating cover, I rescued Harriet from the Little Free Library and took her home. After washing my hands and wiping down the cover, I started reading. Just like Harriet with her notebook, I could not put this book down.

Harriet, Routines, and Tomato Sandwiches

Dear Reader, I have wonderful news! Harriet the Spy is just as engaging a read now as when I was in the 6th grade. It is refreshing to read a character who is so honest about everything going on around her. Just as a reminder, as the book begins, Harriet starts the 6th grade as an 11-year-old. After school each day, Harriet goes on her spy route and writes about people in her neighborhood. She also writes about her family, classmates, and teachers. As I read, I kept thinking, “How did Louise Fitzhugh make this book so endearing?”

I realized that she wrote about a time in everyone’s life that is so full of flux. Do we ever really outgrow that time in our lives? Especially now, when routines, jobs, schools, and almost every other constant changed overnight, Harriet the Spy is a welcome read.

Like many children, Harriet craves routines. The author establishes early on that Harriet has attended the same school since she was 4 years old. She eats a tomato sandwich every day for lunch and has cake and milk every day after school. Harriet would even wear the same clothes every day if her mother did not force her to change.

When Harriet arrives at school, she knows everyone and everyone knows her. Even her classmates are creatures of habit. After their teacher calls roll, all of the students punch each other. I admit, I have some questions about this little detail. Did the teacher try to stop this at some point and gave up? Do they throw hard punches or is it more like a fist bump? How did this start in the first place? Anyway, the fact that they do it every day, year after year, shows one more way that Harriet lives for the safety in these routines.

In the course of the novel, Harriet realizes that she is growing up and that things are starting to change all around her. Her best friend Sport must attend a new school for 7th grade. Their current school only accepts boys through the 6th grade. Harriet starts wondering what her mother does all day. Will she do those things too as she grows up? The other girls in the class speculate about the same thing. Harriet spies them playing bridge together, pretending to be like their own mothers.  Wisely Harriet says that she feels sorry for those girls. This is how they will look for the rest of their lives.

One horrible day, Harriet’s classmates find her spy notebook. They read all of the true things that Harriet writes about them and ostracizes her from their little society. This is the catalyst that disrupts all of the routines in Harriet’s life. Her mother fires her nanny, Ole Golly, who then announces that she must move out anyway in order to get married. Harriet’s friends continue to ignore her. Furthermore, they withhold punching her after roll call. Even her tomato sandwich is not safe. Someone pilfers it, leaving Harriet with nothing to eat for lunch.

Making Sense of Our World With Harriet

This book was an excellent read right now because we are all Harriet as our world changes and shifts around us. I am a teacher, a real creature of habit. I now long for days in the classroom when I can lead my students through all of our classroom routines and procedures. They help us all feel safe. The coronavirus snatched that all away from us, breaking our routines like someone stealing Harriet’s beloved tomato sandwich.

Harriet reacts to the changes around her in the same ways that people in my household have. After her friends read her notebooks, Harriet spends a lot of time lying in her bed or going to bed early. After logging in hours working from home and homeschooling my son, my family and I spent much more time going on walks, lying on the couch, and watching the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. It took awhile for us to fully accept the changes to our little world and figure out what to do with ourselves.

At the end of the book, Harriet finally comes to terms with all of the changes, apologizes, and realizes that she and her classmates are all growing up. As I read this part of the novel, I started accepting all of the changes around us. As a family, we ordered masks, limited grocery shopping to once a week, and started finding new ways to see friends and family. Sunday Zoom mass, online trivia with friends, and Netflix Watch Parties are now staples of our week, things I might miss once we venture out more and more.

Sometimes, books seem to find us at exactly the right moments. Harriet the Spy proved to be an excellent read at this time in my life. I’m encouraged to stray from my TBR pile and search a little more for the next perfect for me right now read. I also really want a tomato sandwich!

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