by Tracy Clark
Recently, I was moving an overstuffed bookcase from one side of my den to the other to make room for a new recumbent bike that I had convinced myself at time of purchase that I would use a lot, and not just as a hook for my jackets, which the elliptical machine next to it had become. That’s when I found it. I was taking books off the shelf, stacking them on the floor to reshelve them in the new spot, and there it was. Harriet the Spy. My old friend. I may have emitted a girlish shriek. I may have clutched the beloved book to my chest. I may even have grinned like an idiot. I will neither confirm nor deny. I will only say that it was a wonderful rediscovery.
I think every writer has a gateway book, a book so lovely, so engaging that it sparked their imagination to such a degree that it set their writing gears in motion. Harriet the Spy is mine. I loved Harriet. Harriet was brave and confident. Harriet was curious and forthright. Harriet was odd, different. She was a writer and knew it. I was a little nerdy kid and wanted to be a writer too. Harriet, I realize now, was my Cass Raines at 11 and me at 11. Harriet spoke to me.
As I cuddled my well-worn copy of Harriet the Spy, the memories flooded back, of course, of all the times I’d read it, sat with it, dreamed about it, loved it. I remembered carrying Harriet in my bookbag that smelled of old bologna sandwiches and chocolate milk. For a time, it went with me everywhere. Obviously, that still held true because I’d found it again decades later on a shelf not six feet from my writing desk. I opened the dogged copy with it’s turned-down, yellowed pages and was shocked to see where I’d actually underlined whole passages throughout. I don’t remember doing that. I don’t know why I underlined these passages. Had they spoken to me personally? Was I trying to replicate Louise Fitzhugh’s brilliance in my own little stories? The reason is lost to time, but the outlined bits are there … in blue pen no less, so you know I was serious about the selections.
I even found my firmly issued Finder’s Beware warning on the inside title page. THIS BOOK BELONGS TO TRACY CLARK. My claim couldn’t be clearer. If, God forbid, I lost this book, I needed the finder to know in no uncertain terms whose book it was and where they could find me in order to return it. In hindsight, I realize scrawling my address beneath my name wasn’t the smartest move, but dang it, if lost, I needed my book back!
As I leafed through the pages again, there they all were—Harriet M. Welsch, Ole Golly, Janie Gibbs, Sport Rocque, Marion Hawthorne—alive again, and as vivid to me as they had been all those years ago. I had a notebook like Harriet’s, the one with the black-and-white cover. It was supposed to be for homework and class assignments, of course, but in the back, I’d write little stories that only I would see. I was as keen an observer as Harriet was. I even dressed as Harriet did, though my favorite sweatshirt was green.
I found Harriet before I discovered Nancy Drew. Nancy came before Agatha Christie. Christie opened the floodgates to Marsh, Tey, Hammett, Himes, MacDonald, Grafton, Wilson Wesley, Taylor Bland, Parker, Kijewski, Mosley, Paretsky, et al. I wonder if I would be here now writing my Cass Raines PI series if I hadn’t found Harriet when I did. Would there have been another book that sparked my imagination? Beats me.
But I found Harriet the Spy again, and I’m still so happy about that. It’s a little worse for wear. The cover is crackled and faded, the spine’s a little loose and it’s likely covered in ancient kid cooties, but none of that matters. You take old friends as you find them and count yourself lucky to have the chance to see them again.
“She climbed the iron railing and was back on the street. She sat on the nearest stoop and wrote down everything she had seen. When she was finished, she sat thinking for a minute. Then she opened her notebook and tore out a blank page from the back. She wanted to disguise her writing so she printed with her left hand:
Dear Mrs. Hennessy,
All those kids hate Rachel. They just want your cake.
Furthermore, they will clutter up the backyard and also they constitute a nuisance. — A Friend.”
You go, Harriet!
Harriet the Spy’s been sitting on my desk since I found it. I know it’ll have to go back on the shelf eventually.
But not yet.
We still have a lot of catching up to do.
What a charming story about Harriet the Spy — so glad you found your “well worn” favorite book…and it’s interesting that it inspired you so much at such a young age….to eventually become the bestselling author you are today! Thanks for telling us about it.
Somehow in my clearly spotty education as a youth I missed Harriet the Spy. I’ve never read it! I think my such books were The Ghost of Five Owl Farm, a mystery in which the 11 year old protagonist has such a wry sense of humor that it started my love affair with language, and The Ghost Rock Mystery, which started my love affair with being scared out of my wits.
I love that Harriet The Spy was your favorite book and inspired you to such greatness. Your latest book, RUNNER, has been my favorite read to date in 2022. I know Chicago from visiting my grandmother every summer for twenty years as a young girl, and I love Cass Raines.
The first mystery novel that stuck with me was #10 Nancy Drew, Password to Larkspur Lane. The librarian in the old stone library at the bottom of the hill where I grew up, pointed me to the mystery section. There was a little nook in the back with a stone bench in front of a small, tall window. Once I started reading, I curled up with my back against the stone, my legs stretched out, and read until the light started to fade. The day I started that book, I had to call my mother to drive down the mountain to pick me up as it had gotten too dark to walk home. I spent my summer curled up in that dusty old library, and I read every Nancy Drew on the shelf before moving on to Anne of Green Gables,
“Harriet the Spy” was my all-time favorite, too. My sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Powers, read to us every day after lunch. She introduced me to Harriet. I don’t know what happened to my original copy. What a treasure you found!