Harriet the Spy was already a preteen classic by the time I entered elementary school. It was one of those books that all girls seemed to read along with Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret and Anne of Green Gables. I was on the younger side when I read Harriet the Spy, perhaps no more than eight, but I recognized in her a kindred spirit. She was like me, because she was different. She didn’t conform to society’s expectations of what a good girl should be and forged her own path. Harriet, much like her creator Louise Fitzhugh, was intelligent, bluntly honest, and prone to the dramatic and both left their mark on the world.
Sometimes You Have To Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy offers an interesting look at a woman who refused to be pigeon-holed by the world around her. Though she grew up among the Southern elites, Louise was bucking the system from an early age, challenging social norms and rejecting the conventional roles established for women. She could write, play music, and paint and felt most at home amongst other creative and literary giants of her time. She wasn’t shy about her sexuality and, in age when many others had to hide, Louise lived her life relatively “out” for the time. When she wrote Harriet the Spy, she joined a then fairly small group of authors who understood that preteens were uniquely different than other ages and that childhood is a far more complicated business than most adults care to remember. At this time, there was no real concept of young adult fiction and by tailoring her work to such a specific age, Louise and others like her were revolutionizing children’s fiction. Though she would write other books and plays, many of them unpublished, it was into Harriet the Spy that Louise seemed to pour so much of herself and her view of the world.
This biography is delivered in a simple, straight forward style and I found it easily digestible. There were times that it felt more like the reconstructed view of someone’s life from a diary or gossip, rather than a true scholarly creation. But I think that actually works given Louise and her wildly unpredictable life and I appreciated that the author tried to provide an even-handed look at Louise’s personality and quirks. I would have preferred there be some photos throughout of Louise, her paintings, and the people with whom she made her life. Many of these things are described, but a more visceral representation would have added to my enjoyment.
Louise was a woman who lived life on her own terms. That meant she clashed with family, friends, and lovers and was often unapologetic. In the midst of it all, she managed to create a lasting legacy for herself, not just as a painter and illustrator, but as a childhood author and one who understood some fundamental truths about growing up different in an ordinary world. I think anyone who fondly remembers Harriet the Spy or just has an affinity for independent women will enjoy this biography of Louise Fitzhugh.