There were three big influences in my growing up to become a writer: My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Richter, who gave me endless encouragement, my literary hero Mark Twain, and Harriet M. Welsch.
If you don’t know who Harriet M. Welsch is, she’s the precocious protagonist of the young adult novels Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret, by Louise Fitzhough.
Harriet was fearless. She literally spied on people. She didn’t just eavesdrop or play pretend spy. She carried a freaking notebook, snuck into people’s homes if she had too, and took down notes about them. She was a daring little weirdo, and I identified with her completely. I mean, I never snuck into anyone’s house, because I wasn’t half as brave as Harriet, but I wanted to be, and I lived vicariously through her. Harriet’s open embrace of her voyeurism was exciting. She was smart, and endlessly curious, and she was ashamed of neither of those things. She wanted to know what other people did and thought and talked about, so she sought out her own adventures. She wore blue jeans and sneakers and a hoodie, because that was her spy outfit. Along with her notebook in which she wrote down everything she saw, she’d carry a ball in her hoodie pocket whilst spying so that if she caught the attention of any adult, she could whip out the ball and bounce it, like she was just some regular, clueless kid.
What kind of eleven-year-old-girl thinks like that? Harriet.
When Mrs. Richter introduced me to the book Harriet the Spy in the fourth grade, it was like finding a bottle with a genie in it. I had already read Tom Sawyer and loved it, but here was a crazy adventure that starred a girl. For a weird white girl growing up in the Midwest who had off-color thoughts and bizarre parents, Harriet was the Tom Sawyer I needed and wanted to be. And Harriet’s friend Jeanie was maybe weirder than Harriet. Jayne was a scientist who got in trouble for causing an explosion in her room. Jayne was wild and sort of terrifying, and I’ve always loved her, as well.
Harriet affirmed that girls didn’t have to be cute, or nice or polite. Girls could be clever. Girls could go after things they wanted. Girls could have adventures. They could be secretive. They could have fun and get dirty and even, get caught. Girls could also be loud, brash, opinionated, funny and smart. And girls who took chances could sometimes end up being colossally wrong, but that’s okay because that’s how you learn.
Not only are Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret still two of my most favorite books, but writer Louise Fitzhough’s breezy, brash style of writing (hopefully) influenced my writing style. Fitzhough didn’t shy away from issues like racism, or religion, or class in her books, either. The books are written on two levels: The things kids discuss and the things kids hear adults discuss, even when they don’t really understand what they’re hearing at the time. When I first read the books I didn’t understand everything the adult characters were talking about, and neither did Harriet, because that’s exactly what being a kid is like. As an adult, I can still appreciate these novels in an entirely different way, and the books demonstrate what one learns when one grows up: Sometimes adults act far more ridiculous than children could ever think to do.
In The Long Secret, Harriet’s friend Beth Ellen is a shy girl with a metropolitan mother she hasn’t seen in years, because her mother has been flitting around Europe with her boyfriend Wallace, while Beth Ellen grows up in her grandmother’s mansion. When Beth Ellen’s mother, Zeeny, comes to visit, and Beth Ellen learns the selfish, narcissistic mother she doesn’t know intends to take her away with her, Beth Ellen’s grandmother has this to say:
“She is just as silly as ever; a silly woman who contributes nothing whatever to life. She might as well not be alive except that she consumes. That’s all she does. She consumes … food, clothing, shelter, seats on airplanes and people.” She looked steadily at Beth Ellen.
Beth Ellen looked steadily back.
“I will not let her consume you.”
Beth Ellen’s eyes widened.
As the child of divorced parents who had to endure all kinds of parental shenanigans, this passage spoke to me deeply, and has stayed with me my whole life.
Thanks to Harriet, and Louise Fitzhough, I think I’ve learned to take chances with my writing and never be afraid of writing about the grittier parts of life, because you never know who it might speak to.