You know those cards you see in the store, the ones that have flowers on the front and say "I'm sorry" or "get well soon"? Those are sympathy cards.
Sympathy is when you have compassion for someone (like you feel bad because they're sick) but maybe don't fully understand (because you're Superman and have never been sick a day in your life).
Empathy is when you really get it (like you're sick a lot) and you feel the way the other person feels (cough, cough). Usually we're only empathetic when we've been through the same thing.
Since not every reader has divorced parents, is/has been the new kid, or has to deal with a lunch thief, why would we call the tone of this story empathetic? Anyone?
It's because of the way Cleary writes the story. Putting the point of view in first person and having Leigh write letters and entries as things happen takes the reader on Leigh's journey in real time. It helps us feel what Leigh feels as he's feeling it. When he waits and waits for a call from his dad that never comes, we're as let down as he is. When he's sad thinking about Christmas, we're sad, too. And how about this?
I was about to say I understood, but here comes the bad part, the really bad part. I heard a boy's voice say, "Hey, Bill, Mom wants to know when we're going out to get the pizza?" I felt as if my insides were falling out. I hung up. I didn't want to hear any more. (38.2)
Ugh. By now we're pretty invested in the story and in Leigh's world, and when we hear that kid in the background, we feel as if our insides are falling out, too.
The story is also incredibly thoughtful. Not like, "Oh, how thoughtful of you to do that." More like it's full of the thoughts of a boy trying to navigate life, and it's full of situations for us readers to think about.
Leigh is a deep thinker. He shares all his thoughts as he's processing his many problems. He lets the reader in on what he writes to Mr. Henshaw, what he says to Mr. Fridley and Mom, and what he's thinking about everything.
There are, of course, lots of descriptions in the book telling us who said and did what, but there are also tons of Leigh's thoughts about these things. Here's an example where Leigh has figured out something that Mr. Henshaw told him about writing a good story:
I understand what you mean. A character in a story should solve a problem or change in some way. I can see that a wax man who melts until he's a puddle wouldn't be there to solve anything and melting isn't the sort of change you mean. (45.1)
Leigh gets stuck with his story, asks Mr. H. for help, and here he's processing Mr. Henshaw's answer. He lets Mr. Henshaw (and us) know that he understands the advice and is changing his story in response to it.
Here's another example of the book getting thoughtful:
Sometimes I start a letter to Dad thanking him for the twenty dollars, but I can't finish that either. I don't know why. (47.2)
Leigh is telling us what's happening but not why. It's up to us to figure this out. Is it that he can't finish the letter because he's mad? Is he ungrateful? Is he focused on all the donuts he can buy with $20? It makes us think, too.
Calling all young adults. (Yes, we'll include you.)
Step right up and see how a little boy can start out "licking" (1.1) a book so much that he writes to the author. Follow along to the end of the story to see how he's no longer a helpless, clueless kid.
Even though Leigh hasn't made it to the hair-on-the-chest, driving-a-car teen years, Dear Mr. Henshaw is a coming of age story. Out young hero goes from being dependent on an adult—"I was thinking if I had a father at home, maybe he could show me how to make a burglar alarm" (28.14)—to being able to make his own alarm. And it works. It gives him confidence to see that he can fix things independently.
Another part of growing up is realizing our parents aren't perfect or always right, and they can't always be there for us. (If you hadn't realized that, we're sorry for breaking the news to you.)
In other words, our parents are completely human and fallible just like us. In the beginning of the book, even though Leigh is "bothered when he doesn't phone at all which is most of the time" (16.5), he still has faith in his dad. He says:
Dad should be phoning any day now. When I said that at supper […] Mom said for me not to get my hopes up, but I know Dad will remember this time. (27.4)
Leigh is holding on to the hope that his dad's gonna come through for him. Of course, we're a little more objective and removed from the situation, and we know what's going to happen. Poor kid.
By the end of the book, Leigh has realized what the rest of us have known, that he can't "count on anything he said" (60.39). Leigh sees his dad's actions (or lack of actions), and he puts two and two together to realize that he'll never have the kind of dad he needs and wants.
When he accepts this is when he waves adios to his little kid self.
The story is also (obviously) young adult lit. YA literature usually refers to books written for kids 12 years and older, but we'll stretch it a bit for this book because the themes are pretty serious and sophisticated. The idea for the book came when "two little boys who didn't know one another asked [Beverly Cleary] to write about a boy whose parents were divorced" (source). This was requested by kids and written for kids.
And you. It was written for you.
Epistolary—now there's a word Mr. Henshaw would love.
Epistolary means "made up of epistles." So that's easy.
Wait, what's an epistle? We thought you'd never ask. It means a letter or other type of communication, like a diary entry or telegram. See why Dear Mr. Henshaw is an epistolary novel? Lots of famous novels are completely made up of letters or entries in a journal, but not many novels for youth. Beverly Cleary took this classic genre and wrote one for kids.
If you think this is a cool format for a story, check out this book by Lemony Snicket. And be sure to drop the word "epistolary" around your teacher.
Maybe the title should be Please Write to Me because Leigh really, really wants to be pen pals with Mr. Henshaw. He keeps writing and writing until he gets a response. Leigh wants to be an author, and he's got all this stuff going on inside his head and in his life. So he continues writing to Mr. Henshaw as an outlet and a source of advice. All the chapters are letters that begin "Dear Mr. Henshaw" or diary entries that start out as "Dear Mr. Pretend Henshaw."
The title suggests that Leigh is a boy who wants to communicate and connect, and it gives the reader a lot to think about. Who is this Mr. Henshaw, anyway? He's a distant figure in a way, but through Leigh's letters to him, we see Leigh develop into a real writer and come to terms with his parents' divorce. That's why he gets top billing in the book.
The ending is like one of those dark chocolate bars: bittersweet, equal parts happy and sad.
This whole time we've been waiting alongside Leigh for Dad to call, write, show up, anything—just so long as he reaches out to Leigh and acts like a real dad.
Suddenly, in the last chapter…there's Dad. Isn't this just the best?
Unfortunately—and realistically—not everything ends well. Yes, Dad's there, but he's still the same guy he's been the whole time.
Dad does find and bring Bandit home (that's the sweet part), but Leigh realizes that Bandit is not going to be happy in their little house. He also knows Dad will be lonely without Bandit, so Leigh says goodbye to his dog. Again. (That's the bitter part.)
What's up with the ending is that it shows us how Leigh has grown up. He's able to give back Bandit because he puts Dad's needs for company above his own wish to have his dog back. He knows Bandit wouldn't be happy at home alone for so much of the time, too. Being able to make that sacrifice is a real sign of maturity.
More important, though, is that he's come to accept his dad for who he is—someone who loves him but isn't the most reliable or thoughtful guy in the world. That's not the happiest ending, but it's the reality and Leigh has learned to accept it.
Break out the chocolate, please.
Leigh Botts has just moved from Bakersfield, California, to Pacific Grove, California. Pacific Grove is a little town by the ocean that is super important to Mom because she's always loved the ocean breezes, and she's finally getting to settle down. This makes Leigh the new kid in town and school, which leads to no friends and no dad around.
Leigh mentions that he lives near some pretty fancy golf places, where rich people play. That's a total understatement because Pacific Grove is next door to probably the most famous golf course in the country: Pebble Beach. When Leigh's mom is making food for golf tournaments, that's probably where she's working. Hey, maybe she met Tiger Woods. Oh wait, he was only 9 when Cleary wrote the book. Well, he could have been friends with Leigh, at least.
Bakersfield, where Leigh's family lived before the divorce, is in California's Central Valley, a huge area of the state where about half of America's fruits and vegetables are grown. His dad was one of probably thousands of truckers who worked hauling produce around the Central Valley in giant trucks. Leigh tells us that one thing you don't read about is that most of the scenery in the Central Valley is pretty boring:
It's so boring that the cattle on the feedlot don't even bother to moo. They just stand there. They don't tell you that part in school when they talk about California's Great Central Valley. (14.4)
Consider us told.
Before the divorce, the Botts family lived in a mobile home…and Leigh hated it. Now, Mom and Leigh are in a teeny, tiny place. Leigh gets the bedroom and his mom sleeps on the couch in the living room, but "Mom says at least it keeps the rain off, and it can't be hauled away" (13.3). A mobile home is, well, mobile. It can be hauled away. The illustration of their house shows how really tiny it is. It's sandwiched in between a bigger house and a gas station—it looks more like a big shed, really. The illustration really gives you an idea of Mom and Leigh's financial situation. You can also see why Leigh might be a little embarrassed about where he lives.
The little house is important because it represents being settled, as opposed to being constantly on the move like Dad. Leigh is a little embarrassed about how small the house is. But when his friend Barry wants to come over, it makes him feel better about it. It makes it feel more like home to Leigh when you can have a friend over.
We can relate to most of Leigh's challenges, like problems with our parents, wanting a friend, or feeling angry and sad. It helps that Leigh spells things out for us: he tells us how he's feeling and why, and takes us through the process with him. It also helps that Cleary's writing and vocab are pretty straightforward. There are a few references to obsolete things like mimeographs, but not enough to trip us up.
The content of the story is deep, like ocean deep, but it's very simply written. Leigh (and Beverly Cleary) are writing like sixth-graders.
Since it's all letters and diary entries, most of the chapters are short, and there isn't a lot of description that takes forever to read. The sentences are simple and the vocab not difficult, and there's lots of dialogue and action to keep the story moving.
It's also very straight-forward; Leigh doesn't make the reader read between the lines or do a lot of guessing.
For example, when he's starting to be friends with Barry, he says:
I wasn't sure Barry would like to come to our house which is so small compared to his, but he accepted when I invited him. […] That made me happy. It helps to have a friend. (55.2)
Leigh tells us exactly how things are: he wasn't sure, Barry came, he's happy. We know where Barry and Leigh stand on house and friendship issues, and there's no guesswork involved.
It's nice when a story can be deep like the ocean but easy to get across, like we're parasailing or skiing over it.
Don't get between a boy and his…deviled eggs.
At least when they're Leigh Botts' deviled eggs.
When Leigh's lunch is stolen from his lunch bag, it sets off a whole bunch of consequences. He's hungry, gets angry, and then wants revenge. All this leads to an emotional fork in the road: is he going to drop kick someone's lunch bag and head down the road of bitterness and anger, or is he going to replace the lunch and figure out how to solve things positively?
Don't worry—he won't go over to the dark side.
When Leigh decides to leave the anger behind, the black lunchbox enters the scene. He decides to buy it and put an alarm on it to scare off the lunch thief. It's a ray of hope because he'll get to keep the treats his mom packs for him, and also because he's decided not to become "a mean-eyed lunch-kicker" (40.13).
The lunchbox is also a way of showing that Leigh is growing up, and not just because it's the kind of lunchbox that men like his dad take to work. Making a burglar-proof lunchbox is his way of solving his problem on his own. And did we mention that he also used the $20 from his dad to buy the stuff to make the alarm? He didn't blow that 20 bucks on Lego bricks or Skittles. He used it to solve a problem.
So, bring on the deviled eggs. Leigh's lunches are back in business.
Dad's truck is a huge, gleaming big rig that really packs a punch in this story. It has a very different meaning for each of the main characters—it's the coolest thing ever, a marriage-buster, or the ticket to happiness. Let's check it out.
Leigh's dad has always driven a truck, but he initially worked for a company and drove their trucks. He dreamed of going into business for himself and saved up every penny to buy a big, beautiful rig. We find out from Leigh right away that "the truck is why my parents got divorced" (11.3). You'd think Leigh would hate it, right?
You'd be wrong.
Leigh calls the truck "a thing of beauty" (11.3). It's the center of some really good memories of time spent with Dad (which he includes in his winning story). It's the truck and its haul that determines whether Dad will come to see Leigh or not. When Leigh rides with his dad in the truck, he learns a lot about the country around them and about different types of trucks and loads. All that info pays off when he writes his story; it's full of lots of details from his personal experience. Even Shmoop now knows the difference between a reefer and a gondola.
Leigh dreams that the truck could make him some friends, or at least get him noticed:
I guess I wouldn't seem so medium then, sitting up there in the cab in front of a forty-foot reefer. […] Then the truck would pull away from the curb with all the kids staring and wishing their Dads drove big trucks, too. (16.6)
Despite the problems in their relationship, Leigh looks up to his dad and admires his dad's job as a trucker. He wants to be just like him, riding so high in the rig that the other kids will envy him. An understandable wish from a boy who doesn't feel much noticed at all. To lonely and vulnerable Leigh, the truck means "big and powerful."
Leigh is crazy about the truck. Mom? Not so much.
The thing is, before Leigh was born, Mom loved the freedom and excitement of riding in a truck with her husband. The truck is even part of why she fell in love with him: "He was big and handsome and nothing seemed to bother him, and the way he handled his rig—well, he seemed like a knight in shining armor" (39.13).
But things change when Leigh is born. Mom says she thinks Dad "fell in love" with his new truck.
To Leigh's mom, the truck and the long hours Dad spends in it away from home mean a pretty lonely life for her. It also means irresponsibility—hanging around truck stops and playing video games instead of being home and helping to raise Leigh. In some ways, Leigh's ideas of Dad and the truck become like Mom's as he starts to lose faith in his dad:
I still wanted him to pull up in front of the house in his big rig, but now I knew I couldn't count on it. (52.10)
That shiny truck is starting to lose some of its luster.
The truck is Dad's life. For Dad and Bandit, it means freedom.
"Bandit likes to ride. That's how we got him. He just jumped into Dad's cab at a truck stop in Nevada and sat there." (14.3)
Leigh asks Mom why his dad is in love with his truck if a trucker's life is so hard. Mom says:
"It's not really his truck he is in love with. He loves the feel of power when he is sitting high in his cab controlling a mighty machine. He loves the excitement of never knowing where his next trip will take him." (34.3)
It's not actually the physical truck Dad loves so much but what the truck represents: power, freedom, and excitement. Dad's just a ramblin' man.
For something that's just a hunk of metal, that truck sure does evoke very different reactions from these three.
Ways to Get More Allowance is a book we'd totally dig right now. We're guessing the author would get lots of fan mail, too.
Did Mr. Henshaw get lots of fan mail about Ways to Amuse a Dog? He certainly did from Leigh. It's the reason Leigh writes to Mr. Henshaw in the first place. And every year after that for four years.
Ways to Amuse a Dog starts this important bond between author and boy that deepens into a friendship/mentorship that carries Leigh through his very difficult sixth-grade year. The book helps Leigh through some tough stuff, like losing his dog in the divorce. He says:
I really miss Bandit, but I guess he's happier riding around with Dad. Like the father said in Ways to Amuse a Dog, dogs get pretty bored just lying around the house all day. (14.2)
Ways to Amuse a Dog also helps Leigh get noticed at school. "The only time anybody paid much attention to me was in my last school when I gave the book report," Leigh writes (15.3). It sounds kinda sad, actually, that it takes a book report for the guy to feel special, but, hey, he'll take it.
The book is a constant thing in Leigh's life, but as he gets older, he relates to it in different ways. When he's little, he reads it for fun. When things get tough, he reads it "for the thousandth time. I read harder books now, but I still feel good when I read that book" (52.18). It's familiar and comforting, like a soft, broken-in shirt.
At the end of the story, the book becomes the reason Leigh gives Bandit back to his dad, to keep him company on the long rides. He's using the book in a deeper way, to learn empathy for his dad. Beverly Cleary is using Leigh's favorite book to tell us that good literature can become part of our lives, like favorite friends we always want to spend time with.
Until someone writes Ways to Get More Allowance, this is one book Leigh will definitely be holding onto.
Dear Mr. Henshaw is made up entirely of letters or diary entries written by Leigh, which means that everything is from Leigh's perspective. The only time we get another point of view is when Leigh quotes what someone else says.
Leigh never shows the reader that he's an unreliable narrator. The adults don't call him a liar, and he doesn't tell us one thing here and change his story over there. So when he says other people are doing such-and-such or that they look like this or that, we believe him.
However, since this is from a young boy's perspective who's writing as he experiences everything (versus writing what happened a long time ago), he's reliable but not always truthful. But that's only because he doesn't always know what's true in the moment.
Confused? Let Shmoop explain.
Mom says how much she loved riding with Dad, and Leigh thinks, "Maybe if I hadn't been born, Mom might still be riding with Dad. Maybe I'm to blame for everything" (34.4). These are totally valid thoughts in the moment, but also totally wrong. We (and Leigh) find out later that Mom "had had enough of highways and truck stops" (39.14) and assures him that it wasn't his fault. Mom sets the record straight for Leigh, telling him she was done with all the traveling, and it had nothing to do with him.
Whew. Now Leigh knows that those worries he had before were all false.
Another example comes at the very end. Dad finally comes to visit (hooray) and then tells Leigh he's only in the area to pick up a shipment of broccoli (boo).
Leigh writes, "I felt let down and my feelings hurt. They hurt so much I couldn't think of anything to say" (60.14). Dad is only there for the broccoli.
Then Dad leaves, and Leigh thinks about it a little more. He realizes "maybe it was broccoli that brought Dad to Salinas, but he had come the rest of the way because he really wanted to see us" (60.45). It's not that Leigh is wrong when his feelings are hurt. It's that his perspective changes after he has thought things over.
Having a first-person narrator means that the reader is taken along for the ride on the character's emotional roller coaster. And sometimes, we're talking SheiKra.
Leigh is a normal kid with two parents and a dog. He's writing fan mail to his favorite author, Mr. Henshaw.
When Mom finds Mr. Henshaw's list of questions for Leigh, there's a mild scuffle, and Leigh ends up answering them and not being happy about it. What this really does is continue the exposition by giving us more info on Leigh and his family. It introduces the main problems in the book, which are basically that he doesn't hear from his dad and that someone's stealing the good stuff from his lunches.
Leigh probes his mom about his dad and tries to believe his dad is interested in him, all while trying to protect his lunch by writing a pseudonym on his lunch bag or taping it shut. Unfortunately, he does finally connect with his dad and hears another kid in the background talking about going out for pizza. Oh, no.
Leigh is so upset about his dad and the pizza kid, and so frustrated with the lunch thief, that he picks up a random lunch bag and takes it into the hall to drop kick it to Mars. Mr. Fridley shows up and acts all dad-like, talking him down and sending him back to class to think things over.
Leigh gets a great idea for a new story for the school writing competition and starts the ball rolling to build a lunchbox alarm. He writes a winning story, makes an alarm that stops the thief, and gets a friend in the bargain.
By now, Leigh has figured out that he can't really count on his dad, but it's nice that he finally shows up at the end. Dad admits he misses Mom and Leigh, but Mom says they're not getting back together. Bandit is back (and leaves again), and Leigh finally accepts that this is the way things are gonna be with his dad. He can love his dad and be disappointed, too. Somehow, we think Leigh is over the worst.