Fitzhugh, Louise (1928–1974)

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Fitzhugh, Louise (1928–1974)

American author, illustrator, and artist, best-known for Harriet the Spy. Born Louise Perkins Fitzhugh in Memphis, Tennessee, on October 5, 1928; died of an aneurism in New Milford, Connecticut, on November 19, 1974; daughter of Millsaps Fitzhugh (an attorney) and Louise (Perkins) Fitzhugh; attended Southwestern College, Florida Southern College, Bard College, and New York University; studied painting at Art Students League and Cooper Union, New York, and in Bologna, Italy.

Fitzhugh's oil paintings were exhibited at several galleries, including Banfer Gallery, New York City (1963).


New York Times Outstanding Books of the Year (1964) and Sequoyah Children's Book Award (1967), both for Harriet the Spy; The New York Times Choice of Best Illustrated Books of the Year (1969)and Brooklyn Art Books for Children citation (1974), both for Bang, Bang, You're Dead; Other Award from Children's Book Bulletin (1976) for Nobody's Family Is Going to Change; Emmy Award for children's entertainment special (1979) for "The Tap Dance Kid."

Writings—all for children, all self-illustrated, except as noted:

(with Sandra Scoppettone) Suzuki Beane (Doubleday, 1961); Harriet the Spy (ALA No-table Book, Harper, 1964); The Long Secret (Harper, 1965); (with S. Scoppettone) Bang, Bang, You're Dead (Harper, 1969); Nobody's Family Is Going to Change (Farrar, Straus, 1974); I Am Five (Delacourt, 1978); Sport (Delacourt, 1979); (illustrated by Susanna Natti) I Am Three (Delacorte, 1982); (illustrated by Susan Bonners) I Am Four (Delacorte, 1982).

Adaptations based on her work:

"The Tap Dance Kid" (television; based on Nobody's Family Is Going to Change), NBC "Special Treat," 1978; "The Tap Dance Kid" (film), Learning Corporation of America, 1978; "The Tap Dance Kid" (play), first produced at Broadhurst Theater, New York, N.Y., December 21, 1983 (won two Tony Awards).

Children's author and illustrator Louise Fitzhugh was raised in Memphis, Tennessee, and began writing stories at the age of 11. Hers was not a happy childhood. Ursula Nordstrom , a former editorial director for Harper junior books, recalled, "There were many things in Louise's well-born southern upbringing and experiences that she did not like, including her horrified remembrance of teenage friends who, after a date, decided it would be fun to go down to 'coon town' and throw rocks at the heads of young Negro boys and girls. She got out of the South as soon as she could, came north, went to Bard College, and concentrated on losing every single trace of her southern accent—and prejudices."

Among the schools Fitzhugh attended were Hutchison School, Southwestern College, Florida Southern College, and New York University's School of Education. She left New York University six months before completing her degree in literature to pursue her interest in art. She studied at New York's Art Students League and Cooper Union, and also in Bologna, Italy. Her

oil paintings, realistic in style, were exhibited in several galleries, including Banfer Gallery, New York City, in 1963.

Fitzhugh first attracted attention with her satiric illustrations—including renderings of beatniks, society poets, and dancing teachers—for Suzuki Beane, written in collaboration with Sandra Scoppettone and published in 1961. An agent submitted pages of what would become Fitzhugh's classic and controversial work of children's literature, Harriet the Spy, to Harper. Charlotte Zolotow , then senior editor, wrote in her report of the manuscript: "You have to get this writer to come in and talk. This isn't a book but could be." When Harper and Row published Harriet the Spy in 1964, it was greeted with mixed reviews. It is now considered a major milestone in children's literature. Self-illustrated, the novel, set in New York, is the story of young Harriet M. Welsch. Aspiring to become a famous writer, Harriet dons her spy equipment, eavesdrops, and records her observations and thoughts in her notebook. Speaking of her classmates, Harriet notes in typically blunt fashion, "They are just bats. Half of them don't even have a profession." About mothers, she notes: "I wouldn't like to have a dumb mother. It must make you feel very unpopular." Harriet's observations expose the hypocrisy of the adult world and cause her trouble when her classmates discover the notebook.

The New York Times Book Review called Fitzhugh "one of the brightest talents of 1964," and praised the book as "vigorous" and "original in style and content." Ellen Rudden, in Library Journal, called Harriet "one of the meatiest heroines in modern juvenile fiction." However, critics like Ruth Hill Viguers of the highly respected Horn Book strongly objected to the story's "disagreeable people and situations" and questioned its "realism" and suitability for children, while others considered it "devastatingly" real. In 1974, 20 years after it was published, the book was still periodically removed from the shelves of school libraries out of fear that children might imitate Harriet's behavior.

Harriet's sequel, The Long Secret (1965), was less controversial and received particularly high praise for its sensitive treatment of young girls' reactions to the onset of puberty. Nordstrom remarked of her first reading of the manuscript: "When I came to the page where the onset of Beth Ellen's first menstrual period occurred, and it was written so beautifully, to such perfection, I scrawled in the margin, 'Thank you, Louise Fitzhugh.' It was the first mention in junior books of this tremendous event in a girl's life." At the end of a glowing review, School Library Journal commented: "This second book may be less of a bombshell to timid librarians and reviewers, but its impact may be more durable than that of Harriet the Spy."

In 1969, Fitzhugh collaborated again with Scoppettone on Bang, Bang, You're Dead, an anti-war story. It was followed by Nobody's Family Is Going to Change (1974), which centers around a black, middle-class New York family with a maid and two private-school children, Emma and Willie. The story, about what happens when children do not live up to parental expectations (Willie wants to be a dancer and Emma a lawyer), was turned into a television movie called the "The Tap Dance Kid" in 1978 and also became a Broadway musical in 1983.

Fitzhugh suffered a fatal aneurysm in 1974, age 46, at the peak of her career. She was buried in Bridgewater, Connecticut, in accordance with her wishes to be interred north of the Mason-Dixon line. Recalled Nordstrom: "Louise Fitzhugh adored music and was a superb dancer. She was also a brilliant painter. One of her canvases of a little girl standing alone in a meadow expressed all the essential loneliness I think Louise always felt. She was a brilliant, erratic, moody, often extremely thoughtful and endearing person. And she was intensely committed to her writing and to her drawing and painting." At the time of her death, she was working on the text and illustrations of I Am Five, part of an uncompleted series. The book and its sequels were published posthumously in 1978, 1979, and 1982. In 1996, a movie was made of her most memorable book, Harriet the Spy, starring Michelle Trachtenberg and Rosie O'Donnell.


Commire, Anne. Something About the Author. Vol. 45. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Fitzhugh, Louise (1928–1974)