I've been something of a young adult literature junkie lately, fueled in part by my book club's decision to lay off the "heavy stuff" for the summer. On our list for the next couple of months are (among others): The Phantom Tollbooth, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, Bridge to Terabithia, The Neverending Story, and my pick, Harriet the Spy.
I was unable to contain my excitement to read Harriet the Spy again, so I did so this weekend. When I was younger and obsessed with writing, Harriet was one of my heroes. In elementary school we had a dress-as-your-favorite-fictional-character day, and I came in full spy gear, right down to the spiral notebook and thick rimmed glasses without lenses.
It's a bummer when heroes fall.
On the reread, something became glaringly obvious to me that wasn't so before. Harriet is terrible. She's dreadfully spoiled and insists on everything being just so all the time. She writes horribly mean things about people. She does horribly mean things to people.
Maybe it's not her fault. Her parents are the antithesis of involved with her, being too busy with high society to raise her themselves. Her nurse is a bizarre mixture of almost completely emotionally inaccessible, lofty and from humble beginnings that, in the end, she can't seem to leave behind.
Virtually all the children Harriet goes to school, and indeed all the other characters in the book, are of similar backgrounds to her, with the exception of her best friend and the people she spies on. It would be one thing if she learned from these characters, but in the end it seems all she can do is make crass generalizations and mean observations of all of them. Even when confronted with how her spying might harm other people, she simply continues on in the same manner as before. The only resolution is other people forgiving her, after she essentially lies about being sorry for hurting others' feelings.
Children's literature is amazing to read as an adult, but what you glean from it is remarkably different.