Living In: Harriet the Spy


“When you read a book as a child,” Meg Ryan says in the iconic romantic comedy, You’ve Got Mail, “it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.” Although it’s certainly more romantic to think that way about books, the same can definitely be said of movies. Many people find that, looking back on their childhoods, there is a specific book, film or television show that had a lasting impact on their lives. An impact that, subconsciously or not, would define their personalities, tastes and interests for years to come. For me, that movie was Harriet the Spy.

Though not the most commercially successful or critically acclaimed children’s film of all time, Harriet the Spy has gone on to achieve cult status for people who were the right age when it was released. The film, which is based on Louise Fitzhugh’s 1964 novel of the same name, stars a young Michelle Trachtenberg as Harriet M. Welsch, a plucky 11-year-old girl whose greatest ambition is to become a writer. At the behest of her beloved nanny, ‘Ol Golly (played by a lovable Rosie O’Donnell), Harriet takes to writing down everything she sees and hears in her private notebook. This is why, as she succinctly states in the film’s opening scene, “I am a spy.” The otherwise nostalgic romp takes a dramatic turn when Harriet’s notebook is seized and read by her friends, uncovering hidden secrets and forcing her to reexamine her life and relationships.

At once delightfully fun and surprisingly poignant, Harriet the Spy became quite the inspiration to me. The film solidified my desire to some day become a writer, and taking cues directly from Harriet herself, I spent years of my childhood hunched over a ratty marble notebook, spying on neighbors and writing salacious notes. For Halloween in third grade, my school mandated that each child dress as their favorite book character. Gender norms be gone —  I was going to be Harriet the Spy, and that was that. Although I may not have known it then, it appears that the film also had a lasting impact on my visual tastes. Upon reexamining the movie for this post, I found that I remain drawn to the film’s interiors, golden-hued throwbacks to mid-century America. From Harriet’s classic yellow raincoat to the orange school desks in her classroom, every item in the film is filled with luscious color and warmth. For me, there really is no better film to “live in.” — Max


Image above, clockwise from top left: Fetch Eyeglasses, $85 | Yellow Coat, $556 | Striped Shirt, $150 | Opera Binoculars, $26.99 | Vintage Compact, $32.50 | Yellow Seatbelt Belt, $24.95 | The Essential Charlie Parker, $9.49 | Black Ticonderoga Pencils, $9.47 for 12 | Composition Notebook iPhone Case, $40 | High-Rise Wide-Leg Jeans, $150 | Leather-Wrapped Flashlight, $14.99 | Vans Sneakers, $45

More Harriet the Spy goodness after the jump . . .


Image above, clockwise from top left: Portable Radio, £149.95 | Orla Kiely Wallpaper, $90 | Raindrops Fabric, $4.90/half yard | Candy Necklaces, $12 for 8 | Vintage Danish Cabinet, $1,045 | Corona Chair, $6,980


Image above, clockwise from top left: Iron Bed, $699 | Vintage Typewriter, $150 | Paper Mache Tiger Mask, $45 | Paper Mache Bear Mask, $43 | Vintage Task Lamp, $28 | Pyramid Light Garland, $68 | Patchwork Quilt, $149 | Bertoia Side Chair, $539

Also — just for fun: Here’s the awesome music video that accompanied the Harriet the Spy film. The song title is “The Secretive Life,” and it’s performed by Jill Sobule (of 1990s “I Kissed a Girl” fame).

Mackenzie

I loved this movie! I actually watched it again a few weeks ago on Netflix.Even though I was a kid when the movie came out, I think the book affected me a lot more. I absolutely went through a spy phase when we read the book in elementary school! One of my favorite memories is when the teacher assigned us to become spies on the playground at recess and write down what the other kids were doing :)

Jess

Best “Living In” post EVER! I was just thinking the other day I want a typewriter like Harriet had.

N

I love that your genuine <3 for this movie translates so perfectly into your 'living in' match ups…and come on, who didn't make a "PRIVATE" notebook after reading the book and watching the movie?!

Callie

I agree. This is the best “living in” ever …because this is the most relatable movie ever. I also read the book until the cover came off! <3

Penelope

My favourite ‘Living In’ to date, you have pulled together some beautiful items.

I had a spy club with my brother and sister after we watched this movie, our poor mum and dad put up with us spying on them for weeks while they went about their daily routines!!

Kelly

YAY! Thanks for this post! Harriet the Spy was THE BOOK for me as a kid, though the movie came out a little too late for me. I definitely spent years lugging notebook after notebook around to school writing down everything.

Sarah

I LOVED this movie when I was a kid! In fact, I might still have it on VHS…

Joy @ imaginejoy

Such a fun “Living In” post – and I love your personal connection to the film!
I loved the book as a kid and think the story taps into something quite universal.

tessa

Great living in!

I have the scene where they draw on their feet and transfer the ‘tattoo’ and the huge round sink with the foot pedal in the school bathroom clearly etched in my memory.

Kate Bartho

Oh man, I was excited to read this post after seeing the title. Yes, Harriet the Spy is one of those movies where I can hear every line of dialogue in my head, with all the visuals of bubbles and colors and running and paint and the dumbwaiter…all of it. I can see the bright orange VHS tape with my last name on it, because I’d lend it to my friends and I didn’t want it to get lost. Max, I really enjoy your posts! I liked your writing before, but especially since your Buffalo city guide, when I learned how much you love that city too, I really look forward to seeing what my fellow WNYer has to say.

Rosa

I love love love this post, I was also a Harriet fan

one more thing, I find myself wanted to pin some of design sponge posts but I cannot, is it intentional?

Amy Azzarito

Hi Rosa –
You should definitely be able to pin. I actually just tried it. You just need to install the Pin It button in your browser and then use that. Be sure you’ve clicked into the post and are not just pinning from the front page. Thanks!
Amy

Gabrielle Treanor

Love this post! I read Harriet the Spy and loved it, but never saw the movie, might have to hunt it down now. The book of my childhood was Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery. Whenever I needed comfort I would reread my mum’s ancient copy passed down to her from her favourite aunt, so much so that I’ve had to buy a new copy to save damaging it further! The book means so much to me I named my business after it :)

Nina

this book & movie influenced me to eat nothing but tomato and mayo sandwiches for a year and i’m pretty sure i still have my spy notebook tucked in a memory box somewhere. thanks for this nostalgia trip!

Rachel Hayes

Thanks for this! This is one of my most favorite movies and I had completely forgotten about it! As a woman in my 30s I am completely okay with watching this movie over and over again.

cde

Ahh, totally loved the book and movie as a kid! I kept a private notebook ala Harriet after seeing the movie, but my dad read some of the mean things I wrote and I got in trouble, just like Harriet! Thank goodness for smart, quirky girl role models…if there was a Living In for books, I’d beg for From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler!

Sarah

I just need to add my name to the chorus of “Yays!”I read the book as a kid, and while I didn’t become a spy, it did lead to me and my friends starting a detective agency called The Midnight Moons…don’t look us up, we folded in Grade 5.
I just watched the movie with my daughter a few months ago and I loved it. I really enjoyed that the kids were dressed in baggy kids clothes, and not a pink clothing item nor a logo emblazoned t-shirt in sight!

Lauren B.

I read the book as a child. I couldn’t believe Harriet would jump into her neighbor’s dumbwaiter. And thanks to Harriet, “the time has come, the walrus said…” is committed to my memory. I must have found the book at just the right age (back in the 1970s). It sticks with me to this day!

fariha

i LOVE this post. and i absolutely loved this movie as a kid. so nice to relive it through your pictures and modern day inspirations.

Lizzie

Love this! Also, I just want to brag that my 3 month old is named Harriet! Can’t wait to share this book with her.

Kelly

Definitely one of the movies that shaped my life, although I did not grow up to be a writer, or a spy. I had a little lisa frank notebook and would “spy” on my neighborhood after school on my bike. I remember even having a magnifying glass and other “spy tools” in my bike basket, lol. I will have to watch the movie again because the set design is gorgeous, plus those quilts on her bed are fabulous!

Alex

Agreed on the epic-ly under appreciated nature of this quasi-classic. Thanks for this great post! I just wish I were eating a tomato sandwich…

Olivia

LOVED this book and love the post – I too became a spy for a while, following strangers to the end of the green because I wasn’t allowed go any further! eventually my notebook was found by my (very forgiving!) friends!! I had to rethink my future career after that..

mary @ B&Gjournals

oh yes, very much yes—harriet the spy, both book and movie, were my complete jam growing up. i definitely made my own little spy kit and journal and creeped around for months making observations. still own the vhs. you can’t ever take that away from me…

Allen

Come on, you’re still not giving the designers of these films the credits – it would take you a minute to look up the production and clothes designers of a movie and see what else they’ve done… this is someone’s work, give credit, you wouldn’t dream of posting about a dresser without giving the designer credit…

LindseyBee

Oh I am going to have to find a picture of my little sister when she was 5–she had THE perfect yellow “Harriet” raincoat, & would walk around the house with her binoculars & secret journal, & would “mysteriously” end up in my closet whenever I had friends over to spy on us. Wasn’t so funny then, but now it’s adorable & hilarious! She lived & breathed Harriet back then–love the round up you picked out–brings me back to those “little sister love” days :)

Lis

Oh this brought so many memories back! Running through my neighborhood in my yellow raincoat and wide leg jeans which I bought promptly after seeing this movie and staring in my neighbor’s basement windows making judgmental notes about them. I loved my spy days and still have a soft spot for the marbled notebooks. I always have one or two around. I’m so happy to hear someone else was (and still is) as smitten as I am with this movie! And I think I may immediately buy that Kate Spade iphone cover. Can’t refuse practical nostalgia :)

Erika

This is quite possibly my favorite installment of “Living In” yet! This was one of my most loved movies as a child (a close second to “Matilda”) and the products you chose are absolutely prefect! Thank you for this much needed dose of nostalgia :)

Kate

This is a great post! Harriet the Spy was one of my favorite movies as a kid and after having recently watched it on Netflix (now instant watch!) it still holds up, ESPECIALLY the design. The costume design is… perfect. I went to school for costume design and in hindsight, I really think HtS was an influence: colorful, retro, whimsical. Not to mention set/production design. Love this.

Natalie / Half Asleep Studio

AMAZING. I used to run around my neighborhood as a kid and write down people’s license plate numbers and things like, “Short man with funny mustache walking dog,” in a special notebook just like hers!

Kaitlin

You captured my feelings about this movie exactly. I also read the book, but when the movie came out I did want to live inside of it. I still have very specific memories and images from it–that garden scene at the beginning with all the bottle art was my 10-year-old dreamland!!! And all the colors and warmth of that bedroom are fantastic. Thanks for making me smile this morning!

Kym

To quote my “go to” movie about my “go to” book just brings me joy! I will have to watch the movie again, I first read the book in second grade and by sixth grade had read it every year…thanks for so perfectly capturing the beauty of this movie. as a child Idefinitely wanted to live in this world. However, I would choose to live in You’ve Got Mail as a grown up!

ashley w-p

Finally saw this on my blogreader, and Max, THANK YOU! I was (still am?) obsessed with “Harriet the Spy” too! My book had well-worn pages long before the movie came out, and I still own it on VHS (WHY??) and DVD.. Glad to see your love come through, especially in the second paragraph! Such a great thing to end the work-week with.. Thanks again..

lauren c

great pic!! after seeing this movie, i totally started writing down EVERYTHING in case it lead to solving a mystery down to the line… clues, man, clues.

misa

this is so great! “harriet the spy” was my absolute favorite book as a child. i’ve re-read it several times as an adult and have found even more to love.

Josh T Franco

THANK YOU THANK YOU! “Cult” movie indeed; everyone I ever talk to about this movie either has no idea what I’m talking about, or it’s a vague memory and they think I’m nuts for caring about it. But for me, this movie was/is formative of my career path, general approach to life, and so on. Also, Trachtenberg’s Harriet and Albert Elbaz (Lanvin) are the two figures in my head every morning when I get dressed. I wear Thom Browne pants 6 sizes too big, belted with a wide leather brown, and rolled up to mid-calf with bright socks and ankle boots because that’s how Harriet would roll. Oversized trench in cool weather too, of course. And a great day for me means playing tag with my Bests in the park (but not getting my notebook stolen by some stuck up snot!). THANK YOU!

Elizabeth

Thank you. Adding this book and movie to my boys’ Christmas lists. Or maybe activities for Thanksgiving weekend. Everyone’s memories in the comments were just as fun to read as the post.

Miss B

this is the best!!! i read your blog just for these “Living In” posts.. they should be more frequent! kudos design sponge :)

Aly

“Knowing everything won’t do you a bit of good unless you use it to put beauty into the world” is my life motto and comes from Golly! I even wrote my college entrance essay about Harriet the Spy! :)

Michelle

Would you possibly be able to answer a question for me? You remember that scene during art class when everyone is passing a secret around about Harriet, and then, they spill paint on her? Do you, by some chance, know the name of that song? I’ve exhausted every nook and cranny of the internet looking for it and have had no luck.

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