Dear Mr. Henshaw
HarperCollins, 1983 134 pages
Leigh Botts begins as a school assignment writing letters to his favorite author, Mr. Henshaw. With each passing year the letters continue and we learn more and more about Leigh's life. Mr. Henshaw encourages Leigh to read other books, besides the favorite he keeps re-reading, and to try other authors. After a particularly exhaustive letter for a later assignment, Mr. Henshaw turns the tables and asks Leigh to answer a series of questions. Leigh does answer, even though he is not a natural writer, and it takes him several letters to do so. At Mr. Henshaw's encouragement Leigh begins to keep a journal and, much to his surprise, begins to enjoy writing and through this process finds a sense of peace and control in a life where he feels as if he has very little. Leigh's parents are divorced and his father, a long distance trucker, rarely comes to see him. Leigh misses his dad and his former dog, of whom Dad has custody. Moreover, Leigh and his mom have moved to a western coastal town and Leigh has no friends. To make matters worse someone is stealing the best bits from his bag lunch every day. Who can the culprit be? Leigh plans to set a trap to find the thief, resulting in landing something more important than justice.
I hadn't read Cleary's 1984 Newbery winner since I first became a librarian in the early 1990's and had forgotten how wonderful it is. I chose this title for my 3rd and 4th grade book discussion group mainly because an author is visiting the group and I wanted a book about writing. Cleary, who always seems to nail what kids are really like, is at her best with this work. Leigh is a likable and sympathetic character who is trying to come to terms with great upheaval in his life over which he has no control; a situation many of today's young people can relate to. Cleary wrote this book in response to all of the absurd author letters she would get from children as part of class assignments. Leigh starts out fulfilling such an assignment, but when Mr. Henshaw turns the tables on him, Leigh discovers a love of writing. My favorite part of the book is when a visiting author calls him a fellow author and he realizes that he is and is so proud that she recognizes it in him. Reading and writing can be life-savers and Cleary demonstrates this power. Even Leigh re-reading the same books by the same author is typical for children when they need comfort in their lives. A great choice for younger readers, it is a break from the typical formulaic series generally available for this age level and contains much substance within its pages. I love that we never actual hear from Mr. Henshaw, only Leigh's response to what transpires off the page. A great book that, although older, still has much to say to today's youth.