February 06


Writing About Old People for Young People by Elana K. Arnold

Last year, I had the great joy of introducing Harriet Wermer to the world. In the opening chapters of Just Harriet, with her mother on bedrest and her father busy with work travel, Harriet was sent to spend the summer with her grandmother on Marble Island. Harriet is not a kid who likes things to be decided for her, which led to a rocky start. Luckily, she had her adorable cat Matzo Ball to keep her company, a mystery to solve, and plenty of opportunities to work on improving her terrible habit of lying. Now, though a year has passed in our real-life time, in book time, it’s just a couple of weeks later when we return to Marble Island in this second installment, Harriet Spies.

Many things about writing the Harriet books bring me great joy, including Harriet’s wry, inquisitive, funny, persistentvoice; her cat Matzo Ball and Nanu’s basset hound Moneypenny; and Marble Island, a fictionalized version of Catalina Island, which is a cozy-yet-surprising place—the perfect setting for a cozy-yet-surprising mystery!

But maybe the thing I’m most proud of is the lively, colorful cast of grandparent-aged characters that populate Harriet’s world.

Of course, there’s Nanu, Harriet’s paternal grandmother and the proprietress of the Bric-a-Brac Bed & Breakfast, where Harriet is spending the summer. Her warm, accepting presence is as reassuring and dear as a fresh-baked blueberry muffin.

There’s the wonderful Mabel Marble, Nanu’s behind-the-gate neighbor and the center of the mystery in Just Harriet. About to turn one hundred years old, Mabel Marble is an avid maker of edible birdhouses and the living cornerstone of Marble Island’s history.

And, the Captain—Nanu’s long-term guest at the B & B, a persnickety ornithologist who is not a fan of Harriet’s beloved cat and whose valuable binoculars go missing at the beginning of Harriet Spies.

Watching the relationships grow between Harriet and her decades-older island-mates has been such a wonderful surprise. It’s been surprising, but perhaps also inevitable, since the relationships that sustained me when I was Harriet’s age were those with my grandparents and my grandmother’s lady friends. While I was terrified and befuddled by other children—I desired their companionship but had no inner compass for how to attract or maintain it—I was consistently fascinated and delighted by seniors. They were clever, and funny, and had stories. They asked me interesting questions and were glad to answer all my questions in return.

When I was a kid, the older people in my life offered me perspective and grace, again and again. When I asked rude or inappropriate questions, they didn’t shame me; they explained why they weren’t answering, and then gave me a hug. When I had a meltdown at the table, rather than lecturing, Nana handed me a book to read or told me about the time she’d lost her temper, too. Like the older people in my life, the older characters in the Harriet books have the time and the heart to act as confidants, as sounding boards, as mentors. They are willing to forgive missteps, and explain, and even to apologize when they mess up.

Growing up is this weird thing. It’s not a straight line, all forward-moving progress from immaturity to maturity, from ignorance to wisdom. It’s mixed up. Lots of kids probably think that older people have life all figured out, that they can’t possibly understand what kids are going through. But in the Harriet books, we see vibrant, vital, loving, headstrong, passionate, curious, imperfect people of all ages. Sometimes, an older character has a lesson to share with Harriet. And sometimes, an older character has something to learn from her. I guess that’s the heart of what I think about being a person. That we are all, regardless of age or position, working to untangle the biggest, truest mysteries, including how to forge, maintain, and deepen relationships with others, and with ourselves.

In Harriet Spies, along with figuring out who stole the Captain’s binoculars, our girl Harriet has another mystery to solve: what it means to be a friend, both to a fellow kid, Clarence, and to a stern, rather opinionated sexagenarian, who herself has some things to learn. The answer, it turns out, isn’t to be a perfect person who never messes up. Being a friend means taking ownership of your mess-ups. It means being willing to sincerely apologize when you’ve acted in a way that you’re not proud of… whether you’re nearly ten years old or nearly seventy.

We all have more to learn. We all have room to grow. And, as Harriet and the Captain would tell you, there’s always time to share a cookie and a nice cup of tea, together.


Elana K. Arnold is the award-winning author of many books for children and teens, including Just HarrietHarriet SpiesThe House that Wasn’t There,

the Printz Honor winner Damsel, the National Book Award finalist What Girls are Made Of, and the Global Read Aloud selection A Boy Called Bat. She is a member of the faculty at Hamline University’s MFA in writing for children and young adults program, and lives
in Huntington Beach, CA, with her husband, two children, and a menagerie of animals. You can find her online at www.elanakarnold.com


Dung (pronounced Dzung) Ho was born and raised in Hue citadel, Vietnam, where she studied graphic design at the Arts University. She is the New York Times–bestselling illustrator of many books for children, including Joanna Ho’s Eyes That Kiss in the Corners and Laura Ruby’s Me and Ms. Too. She finds inspiration in nature: the beauty of plants, flowers, and leaves. She also loves to draw interesting characters with unique personalities. She now lives in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. When she’s not drawing, she loves spending time cooking (eating), watching movies,
and tending her plants. Visit her at www.behance.net/hanhdung
or follow her on Instagram @dunghanhho.


There are a few things you should know about Harriet Wermer:

  • She just finished third grade.
  • She has a perfect cat named Matzo Ball.
  • She doesn’t always tell the truth.
  • She is very happy to be spending summer vacation away from home and her mom and dad and all the wonderful things she had been planning all year.

Okay, maybe that last one isn’t entirely the truth.

Of course, there’s nothing Harriet doesn’t like about Marble Island, the small island off the coast of California where her nanu runs a cozy little bed and breakfast. And nobody doesn’t love Moneypenny, Nanu’s old basset hound. But Harriet doesn’t like the fact that Dad made this decision without even asking her.

When Harriet arrives on Marble Island, however, she discovers that it’s full of surprises, and even a mystery. One that seems to involve her dad, back when he was a young boy living on Marble Island. One that Harriet is absolutely going to solve. And that’s the truth.


There are a few more things you should know about Harriet Wermer:

  • She always tells the truth.
  • She’s loving spending her summer on Marble Island, where she is an A+ mystery-solver.
  • Okay, maybe she doesn’t always tell the truth.
  • Actually…she has a tendency to lie quite a bit.

Which is why, when one of the guests at her grandmother’s bed-and- breakfast finds that their treasured pair of binoculars has gone missing, no one believes Harriet when she said she had nothing to do with it.

But this is one time Harriet isn’t lying—and she knows that if she can find the binoculars and figure out who really took them, she can prove it.

With her cat, Matzo Ball, her grandmother’s basset hound, Moneypenny, and Harriet’s new friend, Clarence, helping her out, Harriet knows she can crack the case. But when the culprit isn’t who Harriet expects, it’s up to her to decide how important the truth really is.

Blog Tour Schedule:

February 6NERDY BOOK CLUB@nerdybookclub
February 10MARIA’S MÉLANGE@mariaselke
February 9TEACHERS WHO READ@teachers_read
February 15BLUESTOCKING THINKING@bluesockgirl