Friday, April 25, 2008

Flashback Friday! Harriet and Margaret

At the end of 6th grade, I read two books back-to-back about two very different girls my age: Harriet The Spy (1964) by Louise Fitzhugh and Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret (1970) by Judy Blume. For different reasons, I've never forgotten either of them.

Both of these girls hailed from New York City, but there the similarities end.

Harriet M. Welsch wants more than anything to be a spy, so when (private) school's out every day, she changes into her spy clothes, grabs her notebook and spies on an interesting combination of eccentric characters around Manhattan. Harriet's parents aren't around much, but she has a nurse named Ole Golly who has encouraged Harriet to observe the world around her and take notes because she knows that this will help Harriet learn to think for herself. Harriet's life is relatively cozy and complete, tomato sandwiches and all, until Ole Golly decides to get married and stop being Harriet's nurse. Right after this, Harriet's classmates discover her notebook and find that she's been observing their characters and recording blunt and not always flattering observations. Harriet finds herself in the role of outcast, and must figure out a way to get everyone back to good without being untrue to herself.

Margaret Simon is confused about religion. Her father is Jewish and her mother is Christian. They tell her that when she's older, she can decide which religion she likes better. Neither of the grandmothers is satisfied with that, so they spend their visits with Margaret trying to win her over to their respective sides. Meanwhile, Margaret chats with The Almighty on her own, discussing topics that are on her mind like her family's move from New York City, the secret club that she joins at her new school, cute boys and impatiently waiting to get breasts and her first period.

Harriet was cool. She had interesting friends. Her after-school wardrobe was hip (to this day, I'm happiest and most comfortable in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans). She found the grown-up world strange and sometimes stupid, and was able to express herself with an acerbic quality that I admired greatly. She loved to read, wanted to be a writer, and had a fully-formed personality complete with quirks and flaws. I not only loved Harriet, I wanted to be Harriet.

I didn't love Margaret. I was horrified by Margaret, and couldn't understand her at all. She was a little too anxious to fit in and be popular. Why would she join such a stupid club? Why did she want breasts? I had the beginnings of them and had to wear a training bra, which I found uncomfortable and embarassing. And the period! My jaw dropped incredulously as I read that Margaret had a little secret message for God everytime she went to the bathroom: PLMGMPT. (Please let me get my period today.)

I hadn't gotten my period, and I wasn't going to. It sounded nasty and annoying beyond compare. When my mother tried to hint to me that it might be coming on any day now, I assured her that there was no need to discuss it. "I'm not going to get my period. I've decided."

"Oh really?" said my mother.

"Yes." I wondered why other girls and women didn't do as I had done and make a stand. Maybe they'd just never thought of it. I pitied them.

"What if it comes on you anyway?" asked my mother.

"Oh, it won't." I said. "Because I decided. Back when we saw that movie in Girl Scouts [2 years earlier]. And if you just decide, if you just make up your mind, that takes care of it all."

"Oh, okay," said my mother. (Of course, she had the last laugh two weeks before I entered the 8th grade, but to her credit, she didn't laugh as I sat on the toilet sobbing, stunned and indignant. Where had I gone wrong? )

Anyway, Margaret: She could do no right. The 2 grandmas subplot felt stale and overdone, like a sitcom. Her friends seemed brainless. All they could talk about were bras (wearing a bra to the secret club meetings was required) and boys and periods. Harriet's friend Janie would have blown them all up in an instant. And what was this Are you there God...? stuff? Why didn't she just get a notebook? (I have to admit that years later, I snickered at the proposed song title in King Dork: Margaret? It's God. Please shut up.) Harriet dreamed a large future. What did Margaret want in her future besides boobs (I must! I must! I must increase my bust!) and a period?

Speaking (still!) of periods, after I read both books, I was put off Judy Blume for a while, but I had to have everything Louise Fitzhugh had written. I read the sequel to Harriet The Spy. In The Long Secret, Harriet and Janie and Beth-Ellen briefly discussed periods. No PLMGMPT here. One of the girls remarked distastefully that it would be like running around in a wet swimsuit all day long. Janie seemed resigned that it would happen to her, but consoled herself that even Madame Curie had to deal with it, too. I wanted to jump into the book and tell the girls that they didn't have to put up with it, if they'd just decide.

Although Harriet The Spy was published a few years before Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret the former book seems the newer and fresher one, but maybe that's because of my extreme bias. I'm guessing that there are fans of the Harriet books and fans of the Margaret books, but very few fans of both books.


Choco Pie said...

Hi, I've been reading your blog for a while, and just had to comment on this post, because of those books, probably the two biggest books of my adolescence. I was obsessed with getting my period, afraid that I'd be the last one to get it, so I loved that Blume book. I was also fascinated by Harriet the Spy, and started keeping a notebook myself, and writing my observations in it.

Also, just wanted to tell you about this interesting blog about books, called People Reading. I thought you might like it!

raych said...

Oh, I loved both of these books so much. I was...shall we say, indiscriminatory in my reading. By which I mean, books were few, and I read and loved anything with covers and page numbers.

Clare - The Super Mommy Club said...

I loved Are you there God when I was a kid - it prompted me to read all of Judy Blume's books - great review!

Tara said...

Great comparison here! I know I read both of these....but the one I was addicted to and read until it fell apart was Margaret. And all of Judy Blume's other books. I think Margaret was the first book I read when I wondered if I was blushing. Thanks for bringing back the memories.

beastmomma said...

I found you through Weekly Geeks and really enjoy your writing. I featured you on my discovering new blogs list. It will appear here when I post:

Bybee said...

That's a great site. People always look good with a book!

Other commenters: Go visit Sandra's blog for a great look at life in Korea. Much better than you get from me.

I seem to have guessed wrong. I thought there would be two distinct camps: Harriet girls and Margaret girls.

Mrs. S.
I liked Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing and later on in high school, Forever.

As an adult, I admire Blume's frank treatment of growing up. As a child, I thought she was just gross.

Thank you. Isn't Weekly Geeks a great idea? I went to your blog and love the way you write letters to your feet and your writer's block!

Anonymous said...

I have to confess I never read Are You There. Doesn't sound like I missed much. Harriet the Spy however is still one of my very favorite books. Like Sandra I started a notebook when I first read it!

SuziQoregon said...

I never read Margaret, but I did read Harriet several times and loved it! I'll be re-reading it soon for the Heart of a Child challenge.

Melanie said...

I also found your site through the Weekly Geeks list. Really enjoying it so far! I loved Harriet the Spy but never liked the few i read by Judy Blume. Looking back they seem like teen chick lit to me.

Eva said...

I didn't read either of these-the Harriet movie w/ Rosie O'Donnell came out when I was of the right age to read the book, and I hated it so much (my sister loved it, so she watched it quite often) I avoided the book as well. And I wasn't a big Blume reader...I think I might have read one by her, but I'm not sure, lol. As far as periods go, I got mine before any of my friends AND I was a year younger than all of them. I was only 11, and I was SO mad...I still feel like I got gipped, lol.

Dewey said...

Such huge changes the world in general went through between 1964 and 1970, but probably no group changed more than American teen culture! I guess this is pre-teen culture, but you know, trickle down theory and all. Looking back, without checking the ages of the girls, I would have said Margaret was older, but I guess that's just because she was so obsessed with becoming a teen. I bet she would have been praying for the cramps to start a short time later.

Susan said...

Hilarious, because I had the same reaction you did, bybee! I read both books - I loved Harriet, but she got into so much trouble spying that it made me squirm, because I was keeping a journal already, and I didn't know what to write about the people around me after that! And Margaret, dear Margaret, oh yes, that whole 'we must increase our bust' thing, we had girls that actually did that over here! Plus, the period thing. I have to confess that after I got it, I couldnt' even say the word, you know, when we had to read a passage out in class, and got to the ending of a sentence, and say 'period". Well, I couldn't! I thought everyone would know that I had my period, and I was so embarrassed! So I'd say stop, or end, or anything but the word! so I think 'Are you There God?" caught that anxiety about that time of life for girls pretty well....although my favourite Judy Blume character was Deenie, who had to wear the back brace for her crooked back (I forget the title of the book now). Margaret was too whiny for me. I always wondered what Harriet would be like at that age. I think she would have been like you!!! Great post, as ever!!!

Jeane said...

Never read either of these books, but have heard much about them! I wonder if my adolescence would have been different if I had read them...