the January/February 2005 issue of The Horn Book Magazine
On Spies and Purple Socks and Such
you were a queer kid like me growing up in the sixties, I hope you
were fortunate enough to come across books by Louise Fitzhugh. She
may have saved your life, or at least made it a bit more comfortable.
When I was eleven, I didn’t know I was gay;
I only knew that I felt different from other people, even from my
own family. I was beginning to try to put together the puzzle pieces:
I knew I liked boys, the clothes they wore, and the things they
did, but I knew I didn’t want to marry one. My secret engagement
to the girl across the street, which had seemed like a real possibility
when she first accepted my proposal at age seven, was on the rocks;
she was beginning to show an interest in boys and would laugh at
me whenever I reminded her of her promise. If I didn’t keep
it quiet, I figured it wouldn’t be long before she started
laughing at me in the presence of other girls.
I had to go underground.
Enter Harriet M. Welsch, who became my role model
and savior. I read Harriet the Spy soon after it came out
(and I now bless the school librarian who put it on the library
shelves for me to find). I was absolutely shocked by it
at the time. Shocked that Harriet could defy her parents and her
friends and still survive. Shocked that she loved and missed Ole
Golly so much that she threw a shoe at her father to express her
anger. Shocked that an adult author could know so well what really
went on in the minds of children.
But the thing that shocked me the most about Harriet
was her cross-dressing. It’s an aspect of the novel that girls
today would miss entirely (thank goodness!), but in 1965 Harriet’s
spy clothes struck me as revolutionary. Back then, girls in blue
jeans and hooded sweatshirts were uncommon, though not unheard of.
But Harriet’s high-top sneakers were solely boys’ wear.
I know for sure, because I used to beg my otherwise indulgent, liberal
parents for them, and they refused, although they bought them regularly
for my brothers.
I’ve read elsewhere of women my age who were
inspired to keep notebooks and start their own spy routes, eat tomato
sandwiches, and leave anonymous notes after reading Harriet
the Spy and The Long Secret. At eleven I didn’t
particularly like tomatoes, didn’t have the patience to write,
and already had a spy route, so I wasn’t inspired to start
any of those things. What Harriet did inspire me to do was to experiment
with cross-dressing. I used whatever money I earned doing odd jobs
to buy boys’ clothes on the sly and then went into other neighborhoods
to play at passing as a boy. When an old man in a grocery store
called me “Sonny,” I knew I had passed the test. It
was remarkably easy to do, and it was as deliciously thrilling as
sneaking into Agatha K. Plumber’s dumbwaiter. Over the course
of a year, I developed an extensive wardrobe of boys’ clothes,
which I kept hidden at the back of my closet when I wasn’t
wearing them as my own version of a spy uniform.
It really came as no surprise to me to learn that
at the time she was writing Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh
had been a butch known within the lesbian community as Willie. When
she came into a large inheritance, she bought men’s clothes
and had them tailored for her, vowing never again to wear women’s
clothes. I don’t know if she consciously thought of Harriet
as cross-dresser, but I am certainly not the only one to have recognized
her as a kindred spirit.
Which brings me to the purple socks.
Harriet the Spy fans will remember the
Boy with the Purple Socks as a kid in Harriet’s class who
was so boring no one ever bothered to learn his name. “Whoever
heard of purple socks?” Harriet wonders in chapter two. “She
figured it was lucky he wore them; otherwise no one would have even
known he was there at all.” He later tells his classmates
that his mother wanted him to dress completely in purple so he would
stand out in a crowd, but he refused to comply, except for the socks.
And, as it turns out, the purple socks do make him stand out in
a crowd, not to the masses but to a smaller group of kindred spirits.
He also stands out to readers in the gay community, for whom the
color purple has symbolic meaning. The purple socks are representative
of the details Fitzhugh put into her books that resonate with a
gay audience used to reading between the lines.
Reading Harriet the Spy today as an adult,
I find a queer subtext throughout. Not only is Harriet the quintessential
baby butch, but her best friends, Sport and Janie, run exactly contrary
to gender stereotypes. Sport acts as the homemaker and nurturing
caretaker of his novelist father, while Janie the scientist plans
to blow up the world one day. It was as if Fitzhugh was telling
us kids back in the sixties that you didn’t have to play by
society’s rules, the first lesson a queer kid has to learn
in order to be happy. Harriet’s whole ordeal — being
ostracized by her friends after they invade her privacy by reading
her spy otebook — sounds to me very much like a coming-out
story. Her parents’ response to it all is to take her to a
psychiatrist for analysis. Sound familiar? Most importantly, the
sage Ole Golly resolves matters with a piece of advice that takes
on special meaning for queer kids:
Sometimes you have to lie. But to yourself
you must always tell the truth.
It is this piece of advice, with all the focus
on the first sentence, that aroused adult ire, most notoriously
in the pages of this very magazine in a biting editorial by Ruth
Hill Viguers titled “On Spies and Applesauce and Such.”
Ironically, these indignant adults were generally the same ones
who would have made life difficult for gay people (the ones not
lying about their identities) or for anyone who refused to conform
to their standards. But for gay kids focusing equally on both
sentences, the advice turned out to be a lifesaver. All those years
ago, whether consciously or unconsciously, Louise Fitzhugh provided
us with the tools for survival.
In all her books, from Suzuki Beane to
Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change, the message is
inherent: Be true to yourself. Refuse to conform. Find your
own way, even if your friends and family threaten to reject you.
It will be painful, but you will survive. This was pretty powerful
stuff for those of us who read her books when we were young.
I doubt that Harriet the Spy has quite
the same impact on nascent gay readers now, and that’s probably
a good sign. It’s indicative of the progress our society has
made over the past forty years. There’s far greater visibility
for gays and lesbians in mainstream culture, and many kids now go
to schools where they have openly gay teachers and can join a Gay
Straight Alliance group. There is also now a growing body of gay
literature for teens and even younger children in which they can
see themselves in a positive light. That’s not to say that
it’s any easier for kids today grappling with their own queer
identities. But it may make it a bit easier to find the keys to
their own survival.
More Reading Between the Lines
Not every young reader is ready for overt self-examination;
some may prefer to find themselves in books that don’t explicitly
deal with gay themes but that may strike a chord nonetheless.
Molly Bang Goose (Blue Sky/Scholastic,
Although not specifically about gay identity, this story will certainly
resonate as an allegory with anyone who has ever felt out of place
at home. Three nearly wordless double-page spreads dramatically
set the scene as a goose egg falls out of its nest during a violent
rainstorm and rolls down a hole into a den of woodchucks. The egg
hatches soon thereafter, and the woodchucks immediately accept their
newest family member. But the gosling never feels completely at
home in her family and eventually realizes that she must set off
on her own to see if she can find what she is missing.
Tomie dePaola Oliver Button Is a Sissy
The boys at school tease Oliver and call him a sissy because he
prefers reading, drawing, and jumping rope to sports. Oliver’s
parents push him to participate in sports (just to get some exercise),
but Oliver refuses, opting instead for a tap-dancing class. A now-classic
portrait of a gentle boy who refuses to bow to peer pressure.
Alexis De Veaux An Enchanted Hair Tale;
illus. by Cheryl Hanna (HarperCollins, 1987)
It’s Sudan’s hair — a “fan daggle of locks
and lions and lagoons” — that sets him apart from his
peers. Grownups fear his hair, and neighborhood kids tease him mercilessly:
“and wherever Sudan went, / people saw his head; / they pointed
and said, / ’He’s strange. He’s queer. He’s
different.’” Upset, Sudan storms away and, far from
home, stumbles upon a whole family of folks with enchanted hair
who admire him and help him celebrate his differences. De Veaux’s
poem deals with the necessity of leaving home to find a community
of kindred spirits, an aspect of reality for most gays and lesbians
that’s rarely addressed in gay/lesbian literature for teens.
But the idea that there are others out there who are like you can
be extremely comforting to kids who, like Sudan, are called “queer.”
Glen Huser Stitches (Groundwood, 2003)
Travis is a kid who has been teased since he was in first grade.
First, it was words like girlie. As he grew older, it was
“Sissy. Crybaby. Fruitfly. Fagface.” As he enters junior
high school, his interests in sewing, puppetry, and theater are
encouraged, first by an English teacher and then a home economics
teacher, but these same interests are part of what mark him as a
target for continued bullying. This thought-provoking, touching
novel never overtly addresses Travis’s sexuality, because
Travis himself is barely beginning to consider that aspect of his
identity. Instead, it focuses on the facets of Travis’s personality
that make him the person he is. While the book doesn’t shy
away from the harsh reality of bullying and violence, it nonetheless
remains an uplifting story full of warmth, humor, and hope.
J. K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s
Stone (Levine/Scholastic, 1997)
Many adults have found a queer subtext in the Harry Potter books,
especially the first volume in the series. Not only is Harry an
outsider within his own family, but they expect him to repress the
parts of himself that make him stand out as different. They are
embarrassed by him and, quite literally, keep him in the closet
(the cupboard under the stairs). As he approaches puberty, he learns
that there are others like him who share the qualities his family
finds repugnant. There is, in fact, an entire subculture that co-exists
with the Muggle mainstream, a parallel culture that goes largely
unseen unless you know the small signs to look for. Harry is introduced
to this world by a trusted guide, Hagrid, and, for the first time,
he feels at home.
Andrea U’Ren Pugdog (Farrar, 2001)
Mike assumes his pugdog is male because of his tough exterior and
rough-and-tumble personality. But when a veterinarian informs him
that Pugdog is female, Mike completely changes the way he interacts
with his dog, much to Pugdog’s displeasure. Hilarious illustrations
of a slobbering Pugdog — and a prissy poodle named Harry —
help drive home the point about the importance of accepting individual
T. Horning is the director of the Cooperative Children’s
Book Center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin,
and the author of From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing
Children’s Books (HarperCollins).
From the January/February 2005 issue of The
Horn Book Magazine
GLBTQ Fiction Booklist