Holiday Writing Middle Grade Monday Workout (or something like that) with Harriet the Spy

This is going to take some skill. I’m attempting to make my Middle Grade Monday entry and my Holiday Writing Workout somehow coalesce into a kind of genius new writing exercise via a book review.

I haven’t had much time to read lately, but an NPR mention of a lesser known Louise Fizthugh novel called Nobody’s Family is Going to Change (now on my reading list) reminded me about one of my favourite MG books when I was a kid. Harriet the Spy.

I loved this book so much I started my own neighborhood spy route – albeit nowhere near as risky as Harriet’s. I never snuck into a stranger’s house and besides, I’m pretty sure no one in my middle class neighborhood had a dumbwaiter I could hide in.

from Fizthugh’s bio on GoodReads:

Fitzhugh’s best-known book was Harriet the Spy, published in 1964 to some controversy since so many characters were far from admirable. It has since become a classic. As her New York Times’ obituary, published November 19, 1974, states: “The book helped introduce a new realism to children’s fiction and has been widely imitated”.

Harriet is the daughter of affluent New Yorkers who leave her in the care of her nanny, Ole Golly, in their Manhattan townhouse. Hardly the feminine girl heroine typical of the early 1960s, Harriet is a writer who notes everything about everybody in her world in a notebook which ultimately falls into the wrong hands.

Harriet is very much a Tom Boy, and in my teenage years I began to question Harriet’s sexual orientation, even though there was no intimacy of a sexual nature in the story at all. And I didn’t find out until recently that Fitzhugh herself was a lesbian.

As someone who has kept a diary since she could write, I completely understood the absolute horror when Harriet’s classmates read her journal (I was then so afraid of someone reading my old diaries that I went back and crossed out all the names of boys I’d had crushes on). Harriet becomes the outcast of her entire 6th grade. Even the “unpopular” kids are a part of a club they start. Not only is Harriet the only one in the class who is not a member, the club is specifically about catching spies, namely her.


One of our greatest fears and anxieties when we are young is not belonging. Of being isolated from our friends. And there is nothing meaner than an ex-best friend, and nothing scarier than an ex-best friend who has a gang of buddies to gang up on us.

When I do character work I always think about the wounds that shape those character’s lives. Today I’m specifically thinking about the wound of isolation.That’s a deep chasm that extends into adulthood.

If we are writing a Middle Grade or YA story, the story itself might be about this wound of isolation and how we overcome it. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak addresses this really well.

If we are writing adult literature, that wound of isolation can haunt our protagonist, creating a barrier between him/her getting what he/she wants (or needs).


Set your timer for 5 minutes. Start at the top of the page with the line: The wound of isolation that shapes my character’s life happens/happened when . . .

Write, don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t cross out.

When the timer stops, go to the center of that exercise, pull out the middle line, use that for your next start line, and write for 7 minutes more. Repeat for 10 minutes.

Now go back with a highlighter or another colour pen and mark the things that make sense to you.

For a list of other MIDDLE GRADE MONDAY writers, CLICK HERE


  1. Millie Ho
    Dec 28, 2011

    Great idea! I’ll start writing right away.

  2. Myrna Foster
    Dec 28, 2011

    I’ve never read Harriet the Spy. Thanks for the recommendation and the great writing prompt!

  3. @Myrna – when I was in 10, Harriet the Spy was up there with my favourites: The Phantom Tollbooth, The Rats of NIMH, and the Chronicles of Narnia. Although, it’s the only one based in the real world.

    I had no idea until recently that it was considered controversial and before it’s time.


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