Book Review: Dear Mr. Henshaw

I already like Beverly Cleary, but I wasn’t sure about this book because it seems so outside of what Cleary usually writes (Ramona, Henry Huggins, cute stories about animals). Published in and taking place about in 1983, it’s a more modern book than her typical fifties neighborhood kids. It features a more “modern” family and a more broken, complicated family life. It’s epistolary. It’s serious: Leigh is not only going through it but even though he’s a good kid, he’s right on the edge of losing it. He’s angry, he’s lonely, he’s lost and wondering…

In walks the plot. Sixth-grader Leigh Botts has been writing to his favorite author, Mr. Henshaw, for years, but when his teacher makes her class send a list of questions to authors, Mr. Henshaw has a few questions of his own. Leigh begins to tell us, and Mr. Henshaw, about how his parents have just divorced, he has been moved to a new town and a new school, his dad has lost his dog, and someone keeps stealing all the best things out of his lunch bag. In the end, the story is less about the resolutions of any of these problems and more about: will Leigh adjust?

All the characters in the book, with se few pages and so few words, are approachable, endearing, flawed, and fleshed out. The story is cute and interesting. The scene, again is so few words, just jumps off the page. Some of the characters are special, and others are funny. Cleary is so extremely deft, coming across as an actual child interacting with actual adults and a big, changing world. And just about everybody grows.

The age for this book is a little interesting. While the subject matter would make it middle grades, the reading level is more elementary age. For a more mature elementary age student, this book would work, and also for a slower or more remedial MG reader. And as far as the whole kid writing to an author thing, of course it appeals especially to kids (and adults) who want to grow up to be writers. But I think kids will be able to relate to Leigh on way more than his love of writing and reading, even if they aren’t going through a move or a divorce or another loss. The lessons here, like getting outside of your own head and noticing the humanity of others around you, are universal. However, if you know a child who is going through some stuff, this would be a great book to hand them (along with a couple books I have previously recommended, like A Snicker of Magic, Because of Winn Dixie, Bridge to Terabithia, and Where the Red Fern Grows).

I’m not the biggest fan of the few illustrations, but don’t let that deter you or your child. This is a great book that continues to be relevant as well as enjoyable, an easy read with a gentle touch of charm and humor. It’s not about things ending up tidy, but about becoming a compassionate, open, joyful person despite them.

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