The Plot: Since the death of Coyote’s mother and two sisters in a car accident 5 years ago, 12 year old Coyote and her dad Rodeo have lived on a repurposed school bus traveling across the country to nowhere in particular. In a long distance phone call with her grandmother, Coyote learns that a park in her hometown is being bulldozed. Years before Coyote and her mom and sisters had buried a memory box in that park. Coyote vows to herself to travel and reclaim the memory box before it disappears underneath the bulldozers shovels. She must hide the true purpose of this cross country trek from Rodeo who cannot face his grief from the past.
My Take: This book suffers from a protracted second act in which we are introduced to a host of supporting characters, each with an accompanying subplot that slows, rather than adds momentum, to the story. At least one of these characters could be removed with no loss of meaning to the book.
I also at times found Coyote’s voice inauthentic due to her tendency to philosophize on life. She muses, for example, at one point that “you could be scared and sad and tough all at the same time, like I didn’t know that you could be a million different things all at the same time. There’s so much sadness in the world. Really, there is.” The author could have trusted the reader to draw these lessons from the story rather than having it told to us with such frequency.
The story picks up in the 3rd and 4th acts as Coyote’s yearning to retrieve the memory box intensifies and Rodeo is forced to wrestle with his grief and his abandonment of his role as a father. Gemeinhart’s strongest writing occurs in the final chapters which put a lump in my throat. I truly felt for Coyote and her father at the end despite the long slog to get to this point. Readers can decide for themselves if it was worth it.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to Dan Gemeinhart’s website, he was a teacher-librarian for 13 years which, in my biased opinion, makes him a pretty awesome person!
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: Harriet is an 11 year old who spends her days eavesdropping on others and filling her notebook up with honest observations. When her notebook falls into the wrong hands, Harriet finds her life thrown into turmoil as her schoolmates digest all that she has written about them.
My Take: This book clearly earns its place as an enduring classic in juvenile literature. Having never read it before, I thought from its title that it would be about a girl solving small mysteries in her neighborhood and saving the day. What I discovered instead was a more complicated book about a girl with a compulsive writing habit, grieving over the absence of a caregiver, and learning to navigate the power struggles of 6th grade. I loved the characters in the book because, like real people, they are frequently less than pleasant. I laughed, for example, when Harriet was eating dinner with her parents and, stewing over their recent idea to give her dance lessons, she screams, “I’ll be damned if I’ll go to dancing school!” At another point, her former nurse writes to her and includes the line “If you’re missing me, I want you to know that I’m not missing you.” Such hard bitten interactions between the characters really kept my attention and made Harriet’s world come to life.
I also appreciate how Fitzhugh made the stakes very high for Harriet. Losing her notebook and becoming an outcast at school are frontal assaults on Harriet’s life and mind. And she does not go down easily in this fight. Apologies are long in coming from her and for a few days she is physically abusive to her peers. This struggle really pulled me along through the story.
I look forward to reading more about the history of this beloved book and recommending it to many readers.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According this article, while Fitzhugh was working on Harriet the Spy, she was also working on a novel about a teenage girl who fall in love with another girl. It never saw publication, but if it had, it would have been one of the earliest gay novel for teens.