Monday, September 12, 2016

Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

Six-grader Leigh Botts hasn't been a very happy boy since his parents got divorced, and so he has decided to pick up where he left off in his correspondence with author Boyd Henshaw.  Leigh has been sending Mr. Henshaw one or two letters year since first grade, but now his sixth grade teacher has assigned the class an author report to improve their writing skills.

And so, Leigh decides to write to Mr. Henshaw again with a list of questions for his report, including any writing tips since Leigh would also like to be a famous author someday.  Although he gets a reply to his questions, Mr. Henshaw's answers are sometimes funny, other times snarky, but Leigh does think his writing tips are OK.  Oh yes, and Mr. Henshaw sends back a list of questions for Leigh to answer.  He has no intention of doing this until his mother finds the questions and tells him that since Mr. Henshaw answered his questions, Leigh needs to do the same.

As Leigh writes his answers to Mr. Henshaw's questions in a series of letters, it becomes clear that he is not handling his parents divorce well.  He misses his father, who keeps making promises to visit, promises which are broken.  And because of the divorce, Leigh and his mother have moved into a small apartment next to a gas station.  She has had taken two jobs to help make ends meet, but that means that Leigh is often home alone.  And to make matters worse, Leigh is the new kid in his class, so he has no friends yet, except for Mr. Fridley, the school janitor.  One positive aspect to his life is that his mother's second job is with a caterer, so there is often special treats in his lunch bag.  On the negative, someone is stealing these special treats out of his lunch bag almost every day.

Annoyed about this, Leigh decides to build an alarm to try and catch the person stealing his treats. When the alarm works, the kids in his class are totally impressed and Leigh finally makes a friend in school, though he doesn't catch the lunch bag thief.

And when he is encouraged by his teacher to write a story for the Young Writers' Yearbook, he decides to write about riding in his dad's rig, a story that gets him an honorable mention and a chance to meet a famous author.  Things begin to look up for Leigh, though he does learn that some things in his life won't change, but he slowly begins to accept that and more forward.

Dear Mr. Henshaw is an interesting epistolary novel.  Although the reader never gets to read any of Mr. Henshaw's replies to Leigh, what he writes can be surmised from Leigh's references to them. And since the story is told in the first person by Leigh, the reader has only his interpretation of Mr. Henshaw's letters, so the story's perspective is very limited.  Fortunately, for all his complaining, Leigh wants to be a writer, and so the things his writes are very informative as far as what is going on in his life.

I have to admit that at the beginning of the novel, I found Leigh to be a rather cranky, irksome protagonist, but as the novel progressed, and the problems he was trying to cope with became more and more apparent, I found him a much more sympathetic character.  There is a lot on Leigh's plate and Cleary handles it just right given the age of the intended readers.  Although, at times, I found the loneliness Leigh feels at school and at home is so palpable, it was difficult to read about it, even when I wasn't feeling very empathic towards him.

Beverly Cleary has crafted a beautifully plotted story that may feel a little dated (no cell phones, no computers - would his life have been different if these were available?), but the kinds of things Leigh must deal with are still very much relatable in today's world.  It is no surprise she won the Newbery in 1984 for Dear Mr. Henshaw.  

Cleary wrote what sounds like a great coming of age sequel to Dear Mr. Henshaw called Strider, and I am really looking forward to reading it and finding out how Leigh manages.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library


  1. I loved this book, and I also love the author. I wrote her a letter when I was 13, and she wrote back! I was so pleased to see you had read this. I've not seen it on any other blogs. I wrote about the book on the blog 8 years(!) ago. If you'd like to read it:

  2. I have a sneaking suspicion that Leigh’s life might have been a whole lot worse had cell phones, etc., been available. I guess it might have helped him keep in touch with his dad, but what if his dad was just as unreliable about making phone calls. Plus kids these days measure their popularity by the number of their Facebook friends. There is also the thing of online bullying. The pressures on kids are far more now than they were when I was a child. I will be forever grateful that the Internet was a long way into the future when I was growing up. (I love it now of course!)


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