Book Review: Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary

September 11, 2004

 

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Dear Mr. Henshaw
by Beverly Cleary

I should have read this book 20 years ago. This story about a lonely boy, learning to live with his parents’ divorce, going to a new school where he has no friends, and making his first efforts as a writer, won the Newbery Medal in 1984–the year my parents split up. In lots of ways, it’s like reading the story of my life; but obviously it isn’t about me, and the poignancy of the story isn’t just in my head, or it wouldn’t have earned the recognition it did.

Little Leigh Botts, sixth grade (about the age I was in 1984, too), has fallen in love with a book called Ways to Amuse a Dog. He starts writing letters to the author, Boyd Henshaw, telling him how much he likes the book and how he delivers a book report on it year after year. In sixth grade, Leigh is assigned to ask an author ten questions, and he writes to Mr. Henshaw. In return, Mr. Henshaw asks Leigh ten questions about himself. This leads to Leigh starting a diary, and planning to write a story for a school competition.

But what’s going on in Leigh’s life is what the story really is about–what his letters and diary entries are full of, mainly: how a lunch thief keeps taking the best things out of Leigh’s lunch bag; how a kindly custodian takes an interest in the sad, scowling little boy and tries to divert him from becoming an angry menace; how he is hurt by the sense that his trucker father doesn’t care about him much; and how being recognized as someone special makes so much difference in so many ways…even if the results aren’t “storybook neat.”

Here is a profoundly simple, profoundly real story about an ordinary child who speaks with an extraordinary voice. You will love Leigh Botts. You will love this book.