Both of these girls hailed from New York City, but there the similarities end.
Harriet M. Welsch wants more than anything to be a spy, so when (private) school’s out every day, she changes into her spy clothes, grabs her notebook and spies on an interesting combination of eccentric characters around Manhattan. Harriet’s parents aren’t around much, but she has a nurse named Ole Golly who has encouraged Harriet to observe the world around her and take notes because she knows that this will help Harriet learn to think for herself. Harriet’s life is relatively cozy and complete, tomato sandwiches and all, until Ole Golly decides to get married and stop being Harriet’s nurse. Right after this, Harriet’s classmates discover her notebook and find that she’s been observing their characters and recording blunt and not always flattering observations. Harriet finds herself in the role of outcast, and must figure out a way to get everyone back to good without being untrue to herself.
Margaret Simon is confused about religion. Her father is Jewish and her mother is Christian. They tell her that when she’s older, she can decide which religion she likes better. Neither of the grandmothers is satisfied with that, so they spend their visits with Margaret trying to win her over to their respective sides. Meanwhile, Margaret chats with The Almighty on her own, discussing topics that are on her mind like her family’s move from New York City, the secret club that she joins at her new school, cute boys and impatiently waiting to get breasts and her first period.
Harriet was cool. She had interesting friends. Her after-school wardrobe was hip (to this day, I’m happiest and most comfortable in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans). She found the grown-up world strange and sometimes stupid, and was able to express herself with an acerbic quality that I admired greatly. She loved to read, wanted to be a writer, and had a fully-formed personality complete with quirks and flaws. I not only loved Harriet, I wanted to be Harriet.
I didn’t love Margaret. I was horrified by Margaret, and couldn’t understand her at all. She was a little too anxious to fit in and be popular. Why would she join such a stupid club? Why did she want breasts? I had the beginnings of them and had to wear a training bra, which I found uncomfortable and embarassing. And the period! My jaw dropped incredulously as I read that Margaret had a little secret message for God everytime she went to the bathroom: PLMGMPT. (Please let me get my period today.)
I hadn’t gotten my period, and I wasn’t going to. It sounded nasty and annoying beyond compare. When my mother tried to hint to me that it might be coming on any day now, I assured her that there was no need to discuss it. “I’m not going to get my period. I’ve decided.”
“Oh really?” said my mother.
“Yes.” I wondered why other girls and women didn’t do as I had done and make a stand. Maybe they’d just never thought of it. I pitied them.
“What if it comes on you anyway?” asked my mother.
“Oh, it won’t.” I said. “Because I decided. Back when we saw that movie in Girl Scouts [2 years earlier]. And if you just decide, if you just make up your mind, that takes care of it all.”
“Oh, okay,” said my mother. (Of course, she had the last laugh two weeks before I entered the 8th grade, but to her credit, she didn’t laugh as I sat on the toilet sobbing, stunned and indignant. Where had I gone wrong? )
Anyway, Margaret: She could do no right. The 2 grandmas subplot felt stale and overdone, like a sitcom. Her friends seemed brainless. All they could talk about were bras (wearing a bra to the secret club meetings was required) and boys and periods. Harriet’s friend Janie would have blown them all up in an instant. And what was this Are you there God…? stuff? Why didn’t she just get a notebook? (I have to admit that years later, I snickered at the proposed song title in King Dork: Margaret? It’s God. Please shut up.) Harriet dreamed a large future. What did Margaret want in her future besides boobs (I must! I must! I must increase my bust!) and a period?
Speaking (still!) of periods, after I read both books, I was put off Judy Blume for a while, but I had to have everything Louise Fitzhugh had written. I read the sequel to Harriet The Spy. In The Long Secret, Harriet and Janie and Beth-Ellen briefly discussed periods. No PLMGMPT here. One of the girls remarked distastefully that it would be like running around in a wet swimsuit all day long. Janie seemed resigned that it would happen to her, but consoled herself that even Madame Curie had to deal with it, too. I wanted to jump into the book and tell the girls that they didn’t have to put up with it, if they’d just decide.
Although Harriet The Spy was published a few years before Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret the former book seems the newer and fresher one, but maybe that’s because of my extreme bias. I’m guessing that there are fans of the Harriet books and fans of the Margaret books, but very few fans of both books.