Family problems, impossible homework assignments, cafeteria troubles, wishing you had more friends: is there anything on that list that you haven't had to deal with at some time in your life?
Leigh Botts, the protagonist of Dear Mr. Henshaw, has 'em all. A sixth-grader who's just moved to a new school after his parents' divorce, our hero Leigh isn't quite sure where he belongs. He wants to be a famous writer but doesn't know how to get there; he misses his dad, who seems to have forgotten about him. He worries about his mom having to work so hard.
And being the new kid in school, he's pretty lonely.
Leigh's story is told completely in letters that Leigh writes to his favorite author, Boyd Henshaw, and entries in a diary that Mr. Henshaw encourages him to write. The letters start in second grade and continue through sixth grade. In his letters, we see Leigh grow up from a 7-year-old who can't spell to a young writer who learns that writing is best when you write about what you know. Through his letters to Mr. Henshaw, we learn about Leigh and watch his new life unfold.
Mr. Henshaw gives Leigh tons of good advice about writing, but what's most important is that Leigh uses the letters and his diary to think about his family problems. Mr. Henshaw becomes a friend he can lean on during a tough time in his life, but it's really Leigh who works out a way to handle his feelings about his parents' divorce and his unreliable dad.
Dear Mr. Henshaw comes from the amazing brain of Beverly Cleary, the famous author of the Ramona and Henry Huggins series and The Mouse and the Motorcycle.
Cleary grew up in a small farming town with no library, but her mom made sure she always had books around. Young Beverly couldn't always find the stories she wanted to read. Even when she grew up and worked as a children's librarian, she wished she had more books for her students about the everyday lives of kids. So she wrote them herself, "funny stories about her neighborhood and the sort of children she knew" (source). Ramona, for example, was based on a little girl who lived in the house right behind her.
Apparently lots of people were waiting for these kinds of stories: she wrote 41 books and sold 85 million of 'em. Even with all that, Dear Mr. Henshaw was something special. In addition to a bunch of other awards, it won the Newbery Medal—the prize for the most distinguished contribution to children's literature—a year after it hit the shelves. That's a very big deal.
Beverly Cleary was born in 1916—a very different world from ours—but she said she always believed that kids, and the situations they face, have stayed the same. That's why your parents and grandparents loved her books as much as you do. Leigh's story is one that anyone can relate to—unless, of course, you're someone who's never had any problems with family, school, friends, or life in general.
If that's you, please contact Shmoop immediately. We need to know how you did it.
Who around here doesn't have questions about what it means to grow up or how to handle problems at school, at home, and with your buddies? Anyone?
Here's a secret: even adults still have questions about these things. (Shh—don't tell them we told you.) So how do you go about getting these questions answered? Read a book, write down your troubles, ask a friend, talk to your parents, trial and error?
How about all of the above?
In one way or another, Leigh Botts tries all of these ways to figure out how to navigate his life, especially when life gets way more complicated than having your deviled eggs disappear from your lunch bag. He gets some clues from Mr. Henshaw's books and learns to put his own thoughts on paper; he talks or writes a lot to the grownups in his life—Mom, Mr. Henshaw, and Mr. Fridley. He finds a friend in Barry; he experiments with different ways to trick the lunchbox thief.
Leigh (along with Beverly Cleary) is showing us that all these things help when we're trying to figure out important stuff or are faced with challenges at home, in school, or with our friends. And trust us—there are always challenges. Leigh finds ways to cope with his problems—some of them just can't be solved. That's another important lesson from the book: things don't always turn out exactly the way you want, but if you can accept that, then life can still be pretty darn good.
And understanding that? Well, that's what growing up is really all about.
Here's a little more about the author of Dear Mr. Henshaw from her website. If you poke around a bit, you can also find info on all her characters and some games about them.
Let's not overlook the illustrator who gave us the visuals to go along with the story.
Oregon Loves Beverly Cleary
Oregon Public Broadcasting put together a webpage about their favorite author on her 100th birthday.
How much do you know about Beverly Cleary's books?
Super Old Video
A 30-minute adaptation of Dear Mr. Henshaw was made in 1989 for VHS, which is how video was recorded when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
Even Older Filmstrip
Before VHS, kids watched filmstrips in school—mini-movies shot on film. In 1984, one was made of Dear Mr. Henshaw.
The Inside Story
Ever wonder how Beverly Cleary got her ideas for books? Check out this article.
Beverly Cleary Turns 100
Turning 100 is a big deal for anyone, but it's an even bigger deal when tons of people grew up reading your books. This article is part interview, part biography, and part where-is-she-now.
Think Like a Kid
NPR thinks that the secret to Cleary's success is that she could always put herself inside kids' heads.
The lunchbox alarm is a hit in the book and real life, and there are lots of kids (and adults) who've tried making one after reading about Leigh's success.
Interview With the Author
Here's an interview with Beverly when she turned 90. She talks about why she started writing, how Ramona came about, and where her ideas come from.
Dear Mrs. Cleary
Here's a short video bio of our author.
Tell Me a Story
Do you sometimes wish people were still reading books to you in bed like in the old days? Just check out YouTube and z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z…
Beverly Cleary, Librarian
Here's Mrs. Cleary at a story time in the park when she was a school librarian.
Mrs. Cleary Checks Out
Another photo of Librarian Cleary at work.
Beverly has been around for a while (she turned 100 in April 2016), and she's still smiling.
Here's our author as a little girl.
First Day of School
Little Beverly was placed in the lowest reading group when she started school in Portland, Oregon. Here she is on the right, ready for her first day of school. She doesn't look too excited.
We've Got You Covered
The book hasn't gone through many cover changes. Here's the one you've probably got.
We Love Beverly Cleary
Kids still line up to get their books signed by the author.