Harriet the Spy and Jesus

What kind of examples do kids need?

Joey Goodall / 3.2.23

My daughter and I spend a lot of time in the car commuting from the suburb we live in to the city where I work and she goes to school. That means we listen to a lot of audiobooks for kids. We recently listened to an award-winning middle-grade book from last year, which was okay, but ultimately lacking. It mentioned some interesting historical tidbits, but was written in workman-like prose and populated with unrealistic stock characters, flat attempts at humor, and a ton of moralizing. My daughter liked it okay enough, but wasn’t particularly engaged. When we finished it, I knew for my own sanity that we needed to listen to something better. I suggested we finish listening to Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, which we had started listening to on a long car ride with the rest of our household (my wife and stepdaughter) last spring, but never got around to finishing. It’s one of my favorite books for kids or adults, so I knew at least I’d enjoy it.

Although it had been awhile since we left off, my daughter’s steel-trap memory allowed her to get right back into it. We had gotten pretty far when we stopped. We were past Ole Golly’s (Harriet’s beloved nanny) departure, and the discovery and subsequent confiscation of Harriet’s spy notebook (filled with often mean observations of everyone she knew including her two best friends), and she was spiraling and giving in to all of her worst impulses. She thought of all the things she could do to “get back” at the kids in her class, and did them! From cutting one’s perfectly coiffed hair, to putting a frog in another’s desk, to tripping one kid, and throwing a pencil directly in a girl’s face, all within minutes! After this, my daughter said, “I’m not sure I like Harriet!”

However, as we kept going, I could tell my daughter was being drawn into the story. Making more comments, and being less distracted by her drawing notebook than normal. She knew that some of the things Harriet was doing or saying were mean, but she could also tell that Harriet was very sad, and that was coming out as anger and meanness. Kids know that this happens, their friends have been guilty of this, they’ve been guilty of this, their parents have been guilty of this.

In the novel, Harriet’s parents are flummoxed, of course. In a last ditch effort, they take her to a therapist. In the session, Dr. Wagner takes out a notebook of his own, and Harriet asks if the notes he takes are “mean, nasty notes, or just ordinary” ones. Before assuring her they’re just ordinary ones, Dr. Wagner asks Harriet why she wants to know that. She replies, “Well, I just thought I’d warn you. Nasty ones are pretty hard to get by with these days.”

I think that statement is as true as ever. I don’t think it only applies to the times we live in, though. In 1964, when Harriet was originally published, people had many of the same objections you see in contemporary online reviews. She was no Nancy Drew, Harriet’s literary contemporary. “What’s the moral of this story?” “What kind of role model is Harriet?” “She’s so mean!” This supposed lack of moral and Harriet’s behavior being realistic rather than exemplary, were and are such a problem for some people that they’re unable to enjoy the story: the very funny (if mean) things Harriet writes, the lovely prose, the wonderful illustrations by the author, the evocative setting of the upper east side in the early 60s, and the portrayal of people as they actually are.

I could tell that, for my daughter, it was a breath of fresh air to hear a story about a recognizably flawed kid who is intriguing in her limitations and her failure to do the right thing. We have to allow ourselves this small joy. 

If we were all perfectly capable of doing the right thing time and time again and always able to “be kind” (who knew that phrase would be as weaponized as it sometimes seems to be now?), we wouldn’t need Jesus. Maybe that’s part of it. Before we’re brought low enough by law or circumstance, we don’t want to believe that we are in need of a savior. We want to believe that if given the right example, we’ll be able to follow suit. I want my daughter to know that she doesn’t have to, to be loved, that examples can be good, but neither God nor I are waiting for her to be anyone other than who she already is, and her belovedness is a fact more settled (and of more weight) than her failures.


People who write the books about exemplary characters often don’t really understand what good actually looks like. Jesus isn’t good in the ways most books depict, he is good in much more interesting and surprising ways. He doesn’t just get angry about the things we all know we “should” be angry about. In much of what I’ve come across lately, this seems to be the standard for a “good” character. In a wonderful talk given at the 2021 Mockingbird conference in Tyler, Texas, Todd Brewer posited that the anger that we see in Jesus (like when he drove the money changers out of the temple) is mostly a projection. “We tend to see an angry Jesus because we want to, or perhaps, are culturally conditioned to … We lack the interpretive creativity to imagine other emotional qualities Jesus might have exhibited in these scenes. We who are angry see anger.”

Thankfully, there are a number of circumstances in the Gospels where it is almost impossible for us to project our anger onto Jesus’ actions, like the instance of the woman caught in adultery. The Pharisees bring this woman to Jesus saying “in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” The anger in us wants Jesus to lay into the Pharisees, and yell or smugly say what he says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” But the text shows that his posture and tone was very different. Jesus, as enigmatic as ever upon being asked the question, steps out of the cycle of reactivity, and reflectively stops, bends low, and writes with his finger on the ground. We’re not told what he writes, nor how long he writes, but I like to imagine that he takes his time. All the while, the Pharisees continue to badger him.

Finally he straightens up, says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” and goes right back to writing on the ground. Again, Jesus does something counter to the narrative of righteous anger. He doesn’t issue this as a challenge and stare the Pharisees down until they retreat. He offers it as a reflection, a mirror to their own sinfulness and need for mercy. After some time waiting for them all to walk away, Jesus stands up, and says, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replies, “No one, sir.” And Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Jesus not only doesn’t condemn the woman, he doesn’t even condemn the Pharisees, who are just trying to set a trap for him without the slightest concern for the fate of the woman they’re using to do so. The kind of people deserving of the stones they hold. Because even if we take the “right” side in this dispute, we do so under the cloak of self-righteousness, obscuring the faces of the Pharisees staring back at us in the mirror. We want to trip people up. We want to catch them in the wrong. We want to escape our own persistent missteps and faults by pointing them out in others. We want to believe that doing so under the guise of justice might make this sin good. Even though we know deep down that it won’t.

person in black long sleeve shirt

Harriet acts as a mirror to the reader. We may not be able to fully relate to the choices she makes, but we can relate to the impulses behind them. She is real to us, and lovable, because of (not in spite of) her imperfections. This is like oxygen to kids who are constantly bombarded with well-meaning, but often antithetical attempts at their moral formation, at home, at school, at church, and even in their entertainment! Antithetical because they don’t work, and are largely based on a false assumption.

Kids don’t need to be shown examples of how society wants them to be, they already know.

What kids really need are mirrors like Harriet, multifaceted characters who contain all the contradictions they see in themselves and those around them, and they need to see illuminating goodness. Not the bland and didactic “goodness” of 19th-century school primers and their 21st-century equivalents, but rather real goodness, the kind that surprises us and knocks us flat. Goodness that looks like selfless love and undeserved offerings of mercy. 

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One response to “Harriet the Spy and Jesus”

  1. Janell Downing says:

    What a beautiful piece Joey. Now I’m going to go read Harriet the Spy to my boys. I bet they’ll love it. And I could go for a good reminder too. Thank you

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