37 pages 1 hour read

Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet the Spy

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1964

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Harriet the Spy (1964) is author and illustrator Louise Fitzhugh’s best-known novel. It appeared on The New York Times Book Review’s list “The Year’s Best Juveniles” the year it was published and is an enduring favorite among middle-grade readers. It is frequently included on lists of children’s classics, including the New York Public Library’s list of 100 Great Children’s Books. Fitzhugh published two other novels featuring the characters from Harriet the Spy: The Long Secret (1965) and Sport (1979), which was published posthumously. Helen Ericson continued the series with Harriet Spies Again (2001), and Maya Gold wrote Harriet the Spy, Double Agent (2005). Fitzhugh wrote and illustrated other novels for children, including Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change (1974). She died at age 46 in 1974 of an aneurysm.

Harriet the Spy was released as a movie in 1996 starring Michelle Trachtenberg and Rosie O’Donnell. Apple TV+ aired a 10-episode animated adaptation of the novel in 2021-22 produced by The Jim Henson Company. Leslie Brody also adapted the novel as a play.

The New York Public Library recommends the novel for ages 10+, and the Association of Library Services for Children recommends it for ages 6-11, describing it as “appropriate for a child who is first learning to read independently.” Its Library of Congress subject headings include “friendship fiction,” “mystery and detective stories,” and “New York fiction.” This study guide and its page citations are based on the Kindle edition of the book.

The novel takes place during the autumn months of an unspecified year contemporary to its publication. Its action is contained in a single neighborhood in New York City’s Upper East Side. The narrative is principally told using a limited-third-person viewpoint from the perspective of 11-year-old Harriet Welsch. There are also multiple journal entries that Harriet writes in the first person and shares with the reader.

As the story begins, Harriet spends much of her time spying on people in the neighborhood and recording her findings in a notebook. She does this because she aspires to become a spy and a writer one day.

Harriet’s parents employ a cook and a live-in nanny , whom Harriet calls Ole Golly. The latter is Harriet’s primary caregiver, and the girl appreciates Ole Golly’s wise advice. Shortly after Harriet begins sixth grade, her happy world is disrupted when Ole Golly receives a marriage proposal and leaves the Welsch family. To make matters worse, Harriet’s private journal falls into the hands of classmates, who read some very unflattering comments about themselves. Hostility flares up between Harriet and her former friends. Their pranks escalate until Ole Golly writes Harriet a letter advising her to apologize. The girl prints a retraction in the school newspaper that restores harmony among her peer group. Before this peaceful resolution occurs, the novel examines the themes of Observation Versus Understanding, the Power of Words, and Developing Empathy.

Plot Summary

Harriet M. Welsch is the only child of a wealthy family that lives on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. Her father is a television executive, and her mother is a socialite. The family can afford both a cook and a live-in nanny for Harriet. Aside from Ole Golly, the nanny, Harriet has two close friends—Sport and Janie. Sport wants to be a ballplayer one day but spends most of his time looking after his writer father. He does all the cooking and cleaning and manages the family’s finances because his father is very impractical and unusually distracted.

Janie likes to perform chemical experiments in her bedroom. Her beakers and test tubes contain mixtures that are often volatile, and Janie frequently threatens to blow up the world. This impresses both Sport and Harriet. All three children are in the sixth grade at the Gregory School, which is a short walk from their homes.

Eleven-year-old Harriet enjoys her life and plans to become a spy and a writer when she grows up. To that end, she maps out a spy route through her neighborhood so she can watch many of the residents. She writes down her observations in a notebook. Since she has been performing this activity for several years now, her notebook collection is quite large.

Harriet describes the people on her spy route in detail. The Robinsons are a couple who do nothing but collect art objects for their house and then invite people over to see what they bought. The Dei Santi family owns the local grocery store. They are in turmoil because their son Fabio is always borrowing the truck and doesn’t want to help in the family business. Their delivery boy, Little Joe, eats all the store’s merchandise and slips some of it to hungry children in the neighborhood. Harriet finds a way to raise herself in a dumbwaiter to watch Mrs. Plumber, a woman who never leaves her bed but talks on the phone all day. Last on Harriet’s spy list is Harrison Withers. He makes birdcages for a living and keeps 26 cats in his apartment.

Harriet notes the activities of these people and often makes rude and sarcastic comments about their lives. She also observes her classmates, noting their appearance and habits and recording unkind remarks about them, too.

Shortly after Harriet starts school, her world is thrown into turmoil when Ole Golly accepts a marriage proposal and moves away. Harriet is heartbroken, but her troubles are only beginning. Her notebook accidentally falls into Janie’s hands, and the girl reads Harriet’s cutting remarks aloud to all her classmates. Everyone is angry at Harriet, and they retaliate by playing mean pranks on her. Harriet begins skipping school to avoid the harassment.

Eventually, her parents take her to see a psychologist, who recommends a more constructive use for her observational skills. Harriet is appointed editor of her class newspaper, and Ole Golly also writes to urge her to apologize to her classmates. Harriet prints a retraction and an apology that seems to resolve the matter. By the end of the novel, she learns the importance of empathy and tries to understand the world from other people’s points of view instead of judging them harshly. After she learns this lesson, even Sport and Janie forgive her, and the three make peace by taking a walk together along the river.