Maybe she got away with it because she was already a Real Author when she wrote Dear Mr. Henshaw, but Beverly Cleary broke two major rules of children's literature in this story of a medium boy—she didn't tie up loose ends, and she ended on a bittersweet note. But this is just the way the story should end, and this 1984 Newbery Medalist well deserved the award.
Some facts about Leigh Marcus Botts: he loves the books of Mr. Henshaw, he wants to grow up to be a Famous Author, he writes a lot even though sometimes he doesn't want to, his lunch is usually stolen, and his parents are divorced. His dad drives a semi truck all over the country, and his mom works for a catering agency in a seaside California town while taking morning and night classes.
Leigh writes incessant letters to Mr. Boyd Henshaw, then fills many pages in a notebook diary at Mr. Henshaw's suggestion, and even enters a story about driving truck with his dad in a school contest. The letters and diary entries reveal an intelligent, sad, lonely, boy who wants nothing more than for his dad to come back with his dog Bandit.
What he gets instead is wisdom and understanding. As his abilities as a writer develop, so does his sense of reality, and while he never really "gets" why his parents are separated, he learns how to cope with that fact. Fortunately, Cleary never asks readers to accept divorce as a good or desirable thing; she simply shows us that it happens, and that often it isn't possible to make amends.
The writing in Dear Mr. Henshaw is nothing short of brilliant. The first letter Leigh sends his hero is a second grader's scrawl, complete with misspelled words. As he grows a little and writes more, his letters become more individual in tone, and by the time he's in sixth grade he's able to write interesting sentences that reveal his thoughts and feelings, not just events in his life.
Leigh's wrestling with his parents's divorce is very honest. Cleary spares us possibly ugly details (who's the other woman at his dad's mobile home?), but presents all the uncertainty, fear, and sadness that children of divorced parents experience. It comes out in the little details (why can't Leigh's dad call him by name?) and the more prominent ones (will Leigh's mom have enough money to pay rent if the support check doesn't arrive on time?).
Sometimes Leigh is a brat. At one point, Mr. Fridley (the school janitor) finds Leigh about to kick a kid's lunch down the hall because he's so frustrated that the good parts of his lunch keep disappearing. We (and Mr. Fridley) understand why Leigh wants to do this, but we also admire his self-control in putting the lunch back where it belongs.
In the end, Leigh's dad still has a hard time keeping his word and following up on promises, and Leigh realizes his mom is right in saying that his dad has never and will never grow up. He still loves both his parents, but he also realizes that things will never go back to "normal," and that life doesn't stop because you've been hurt deeply by those you love.
Every kid can benefit from reading this little masterpiece, but especially those with friends or family members whose parents have been divorced or separated. It will give them insight into the many conflicted emotions and thoughts of kids in broken homes, as well as helping them to empathize and treat them compassionately. Highly recommended.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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