Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it,
#ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
Go, Suzuki, Go
By Roxanne Fequiere
Every now and then—by which I mean: quite often, actually—I am overcome with the urge to grab my copy of Harriet the Spy off my shelf and read it for the umpteenth time. I’m not sure what prompts this recurring urge; it could be the simple desire to immerse myself in a story that evokes feelings of comfort, calm, and the still-potent bliss of feeling understood. The first time I encountered Harriet M. Welsch, a young girl with a sharp eye for the world around her and strong opinions on every bit of it, I felt I’d found a kindred spirit, one I look forward to revisiting when I can.
It was in 2014, during one of these Harriet kicks that it occurred to me to do some digging around the publication of the book itself. Perhaps there were some edifying anecdotes about the author, Louise Fitzhugh, or the public’s initial reaction to the book in 1964 that might enrich my appreciation for it. It was this research rabbit-hole that led me to Suzuki Beane, a 1961 book illustrated by Fitzhugh and written by Sandra Scoppetone.
Suzuki looked like Harriet—Fitzhugh had drawn them both, of course, but both girls had somewhat baggy, cuffed jeans, black sneakers, and slouchy sweats, outfits that suggested that they had places to go, small passages to crawl through. Harriet’s bobbed hair looked neater than Suzuki’s haphazard shag, but that could be attributed to her downtown upbringing. Suzuki Beane was an Eloise parody; while Eloise was mostly left to her own devices at the highfalutin Plaza Hotel, Suzuki lives on Bleecker Street, the child of a poet and a sculptress, both beatniks.
Narrated in her voice, it’s clear that she’s picked up on her parents’ slang and worldview. Trains sweep into the station “mightier than a Ginsberg poem,” TV is just one of the “commercial banalities of life,” and her classmate Henry Martin, whom she digs in spite of herself, is “square personified.” Henry brings Suzuki to his dance class, and then to his home, where the adults in his life go out of their way to make Suzuki feel out of place. When she invites Henry over for a change, she finds that her parents do the same thing to him.
Irritated, she retreats to her easel: “I found myself painting a big sign---LIKE----CHILDREN ARE PEOPLE.” It’s a concept that shouldn’t feel so revolutionary to say out loud, and yet—think back to your childhood and try to remember how often your parents, your older siblings, your teachers made you feel like a person, as opposed to just a kid. As for myself, I grew up the youngest of three children, my brothers a full five and ten years older than me, in a house with two authoritarian, immigrant parents. I wasn’t simply made to feel like I was just a kid when I was young; I still struggle at times to feel like a full-fledged adult in their presence. (I’m 30 years old, for the record.)
Reading was always encouraged in my house, and for the most part, there were few limits on what I was allowed to read. My accelerated reading level was a point of pride—a credit to the success of their no-nonsense, goal-driven parenting style, even. Looking back now on the way my parents felt about young people speaking up, talking back, and generally expressing themselves as full-fledged individuals, especially in conflict with their elders, I wonder if they may have taken issue with some of my early literary heroines. Those who have banned books like Harriet the Spy from school libraries certainly did; one Ohio school board declared that Harriet "teaches children to lie, spy, back-talk and curse.”
In the end, Suzuki and Henry decide to pack their things and run away to somewhere “where a square could be a square and a swinging cat could swing in peace.” They’re excited to be on their way to a place where their parents won’t be able to malign their friendship, even though we don’t get to see what that place is, and, realistically, they’ll likely have to return home sooner rather than later. Reading the slim book once again, I found myself feeling genuine joy at story’s end as they walk off into the sunset, in spite of the satire and hilariously Beat poetry-stylized prose. Even when it’s temporary—or imaginary—any moment in which a child realizes that they have the power to make their own world is an important one.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.