I associate books with trees. Not because books are made from trees (at least, some of them still are), but because I grew up reading in a tree. Actually, I did all kinds of things in my tree in the front yard of our house in Houston (homework, daydreaming, stealth reconnaissance of our neighbor Mrs. Jackson who, feigning innocence, would stand in curlers and caftan on her front porch while Pierre, her ill-tempered Shitzhu, would leave unwelcome deposits in our front yard), but reading was at the top of that list of things. There was a perfect little seat formed where two limbs came together, with another more slender limb below for a footrest. I can still feel the silver smoothness of the bark under my calloused palms, still smell the pistachio-colored meat underneath where I scratched a branch with my fingernail.
What could be better than being comfortably perched in a friendly tree, shielded from view by thousands of bright green leaves, reading a great book?
I read constantly, burning through The Wind in the Willows, the complete Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew's adventures and The Hobbit. Then there were the series that I loved so much: The Borrowers, Paddington, all of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books and Edward Eager's tales of magic. I could go on and on with a list (I know I'm overlooking many gems here) but there's one book that stood out from the rest for me and that I read over and over: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.
I never tired of escaping into Harriet's world, which centered around her home on East 87th Street in Manhattan. To a girl with my experience at the time, Manhattan, with its skyscrapers and bustling sidewalks, might as well have been Mars. I remember asking my parents and other grown-ups what an egg cream was. (An egg cream was Harriet's soda fountain treat of choice.) None of them knew, and even though it sounded potentially gross, I wanted one.
Harriet carried a notebook everywhere she went, along with her belt of dangling spy gear (flashlight, extra pens, pocket knife, etc.). She had a regular spy routine, which involved making observations of both strangers and friends and scribbling them - along with her vivid commentary - into her notebook. You see, she was going to be a writer when she grew up.
When her friends found her secret notebook and read her blunt - and hilarious - commentary about them, Harriet's carefully ordered world was shaken. In the kid world, she was left to stand alone and face the repercussions of her unvarnished notebook entries. In the adult world, she was faced with the departure of Ole Golly, her beloved nanny, sage and fixture in her household.
I think part of what fascinated me about Harriet was that she was a very intelligent girl who was trying to understand how other people worked - why they did the things they did and said the things they said. In other words, she was trying to understand life by chronicling it as she saw it.
I related to Harriet's need to have some kind of control - or at least understanding - of what she saw going on around her, on both the kid and adult fronts. I also was inspired by Harriet's self-possession. She was her own person in every situation and I admired that. Harriet, as well as the other kids and adults in the story, were real in a way that I had never seen in a kids' book. I didn't think about any of this at the time, but looking back now, I see that Harriet the Spy was a supremely sophisticated, subtle and grown-up book...that happened to be written for kids.
I recently was cleaning out the top shelf of my nine-year-old daughter's closet and ran across the copy of Harriet the Spy that I overzealously bought for her long before she was able to read it. I made a point of buying an edition that had the identical cover art to the dog-eared Yearling book from my tree-reading years, and when I pulled it from the shelf, I found myself smiling at the illustration of the girl in the holey jeans, baggy hoodie and her father's lensless glasses. My smart, brave, dear old friend Harriet. I think it's time to introduce her to my daughter.