IntroductionDear Mr. Henshaw…can you help a young boy understand his place in the world? What appear as simple fan letters to an author from an adoring young fan become a window into the world of a lonely child of divorced parents. Dear Mr. Henshaw, for which Beverly Cleary received the 1984 John Newbery Medal, is an epistolary story, moving between letters and diary entries, revealing the confused feelings of a little boy looking for friendship and advice from an author he greatly admires.
Story LineSecond grader Leigh Botts’ favorite book is Ways to Amuse Your Dog by Mr. Boyd Henshaw. Assigned by his teacher to write to a favorite author, Leigh writes his first fan letter to Mr. Henshaw telling him how much the class “licked” the book. Over the next four years Leigh continues to correspond with the author and as he grows older his letters become more detailed and more revealing about the events taking place in his life: his parent’s divorce, someone at school stealing the best parts of his lunch, his dad’s broken promises, his desperate wish for a pet, a writing contest he hopes to win, and the long hours of lonely waiting while his mom works overtime to bring in a little extra money.
When Mr. Henshaw suggests Leigh write down his thoughts in a diary, the young boy’s life is changed. Writing in his diary to a “Pretend Mr. Henshaw” provides Leigh a format for dialoguing about his anger when his truck driver dad forgets to call or the inspiration he finds in talking with the school janitor Mr. Fridley about the best way to catch a lunch thief. Writing daily in his diary to record conversations, thoughts, wishes, and frustrations transforms Lee from a small boy full of insecurities into a young man who comes to accept that life is a mixed bag of happiness and disappointment.
Author Beverly ClearyBorn April 12, 1916 in McMinnville Oregon, Beverly Cleary spent the first part of her life in a small farming community where there was no library. Cleary’s mother requested books from the state library and acted as local librarian providing her young daughter with stories to read. Yet, Cleary was always looking for funny stories that didn’t seem to exist for girls her age.
After attending college and becoming a children’s librarian, Cleary listened to her young patrons and felt inspired to write the types of stories she’d wanted as a girl; funny stories about children she knew from her neighborhood. In 1950 Cleary published Henry Huggins, her first book but certainly not her last. In 2000, the Library of Congress honored Cleary with a “Living Legend” award to pay tribute to her many contributions to children’s literature.
AwardsDear Mr. Henshaw is the recipient of many prestigious honors, including the 1984 John Newbery Medal, ALA Notable Children’s Book, and Hornbook Fanfare awards.
My RecommendationA deceptively simple story easily read in a day, Dear Mr. Henshaw is funny, sweet, and openly revealing about the struggles of a young boy trying to figure out where he belongs in the midst of his parent’s divorce. I admire Beverly Cleary’s straightforward writing from the point of view of a child who finds himself caught in a difficult situation. Cleary effectively writes a realistic story about being a child who’s old enough to feel a wide range of emotions regarding divorce. Without cliché phrases and coddling, Cleary is candid about the disruption, pain, confusion, and fear that a child of a divorced home often experiences.
In addition, I liked the letter writing and diary format of Dear Mr. Henshaw. This is a story that validates realistic emotions and successfully advocates the therapeutic benefits of writing. Leigh loves to write and it’s evident that he hero worships Mr. Henshaw. The first few letters are short, direct, and very child-like in their simplicity, but as time passes the letters become longer, more detailed, and full of expression. From the simple musings of a young boy, to the more mature dialogue of an adolescent struggling to understand conflict and yearning for friendship, Beverly Cleary accurately creates a young man’s coming of age through writing letters and keeping a diary.
Beverly Cleary fans will recognize her trademark humor and her ability to speak directly to a young audience in this touching story about a boy looking for connections. For readers who enjoy keeping track of characters, Cleary continues Leigh’s story in a follow-up book entitled Strider. Dear Mr. Henshaw is an enjoyable easy read that I recommend for readers ages 8-12. (Harper Collins, 2000. ISBN: 9780380709588)