Meet Leigh Botts, the "mediumest boy in class" (10.5), according to himself. He's a normal kid with normal kid problems, plus a few more. His parents are divorced, and Leigh's relationship with his dad has taken a hit. In fact, he hardly hears from him anymore.
Like any kid, Leigh has lots of hopes. He wants friends at his new school; he wants someone to stop stealing his lunch; he wants his dad to pay him some attention. He's a sensitive boy who cries at sad parts in books, worries about his mom, and feels things very deeply. And he really, really wants to be a writer when he grows up.
After his parents split up, Leigh and his mom move to a new town, which means a new school, which means leaving old friends behind. Leigh doesn't know anyone, and it's hard for him to make friends. He's not exactly the confident, life-of-the-party kind of guy:
I don't have a lot of friends in my new school. Mom says maybe I'm a loner, but I don't know. A new boy in school has to be pretty cautious until he gets to know who's who. Maybe I'm just a boy nobody pays much attention to. (15.3)
This leaves Leigh pretty lonely a lot of the time:
I wish somebody would ask me over sometime. After school I stay around kicking a soccer ball with some of the other kids so they won't think I am stuck up or anything, but nobody asks me over. (15.4)
Boy, that image gets us every time—a boy playing with other kids hoping he'll get asked over to someone's house to hang out. That's one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the book, in our opinion. Anyway, it's even lonelier for Leigh because his mom works long hours and he's home alone a lot. The worst time is in the mornings:
Mom has an early class. The house is so lonely in the morning when she is gone that I can't stand it and leave when she does. I don't mind being alone after school, but I do in the morning before the fog lifts and our cottage seems dark and damp. (16.2)
This is another sad scene, but Beverly Cleary isn't someone to sugarcoat a tough situation. This is Leigh's life. It's just not easy.
No getting around it—Leigh misses his dad and worries about him:
I have a book of road maps and try to follow his trips when I hear from him. When the TV worked I watched the weather on the news so I would know if he was driving through blizzards, tornadoes, hail like golf balls or any of that fancy weather they have other places in the U.S. (15.5)
Sometimes it seems to Leigh that he thinks about his dad way more than his dad thinks about him. That makes him angry at his dad, but he still wishes he were back:
I keep thinking about last Christmas when we were in the mobile home before Dad bought the tractor. […] Mom cooked a turkey and a nice dinner. We had a Christmas tree about two feet high because there wasn't room for a big one. […] While we ate our mince pie, we all tried to think up songs about lost shoes. I'll never forget them. (23.2, 4)
Christmas is an especially hard time for Leigh, but there are lots of everyday times that he thinks it would be great to have his dad around, too:
Dad should phone today or tomorrow. Maybe if he came home he would know how to make a burglar alarm for my lunchbag. He used to be good about helping me build things […]. (28.2)
Maybe his dad could even drive him to school in his big rig—the other kids would sure notice that. He wishes his dad were around so he could tell him about the exciting day with Mrs. Badger after the writing contest. There are just a ton of times when he misses having him around.
It's sad to see Leigh get his hopes up time and time again that his dad will call, just to be disappointed:
You get the picture.
When his dad finally does come through, like sending someone to drop off a Christmas present for Leigh, Leigh is ecstatic:
"Wow!" I said to Mom. "Wow!" She just stood there in her robe smiling while I began to tear off the paper even if it wasn't Christmas morning. Dad had sent what I always wanted—a quilted down jacket with a lot of pockets and a hood that zips into the collar. It was the right size and felt great. Getting a present from my Dad in time for Christmas felt even better. (24.6)
Dad had put out a call on the CB radio to see if there would be anyone who was coming to Leigh's town and wanted to play Santa. That meant a lot to Leigh. To Shmoop, too. We would've cried our little eyes out if Dad forgot Leigh on his first Christmas after the divorce.
Leigh doesn't know how to fake it. He's honest with his feelings, and he's a pretty emotional kid. He pours his heart out to Mr. Henshaw and can write his deepest feelings in his diary. He's honest about himself, too. He tells Mr. Henshaw that he's just a plain kid, not the smartest guy in school, but not stupid, either:
I guess you could call me the mediumest boy in the class. (10.4)
Leigh can't pretend not to feel what he's feeling. After he overhears another boy's voice during his phone call with Dad, he's totally devastated. He cries and pounds his pillow in anger, but tries to be brave for his mom:
Then I heard Mom's car stop out front. I hurried and washed my face and tried to look as if I hadn't been crying, but I couldn't fool Mom. […] I tried hard not to cry, but I couldn't help it. (39.3)
He's open and real with his mom. He doesn't keep secrets from her, and he's able to tell her what's going on. He asks her tons of questions about life and his dad. This open communication and trust between the two of them is evident, for example, when Barry comes over and sees the Keep Out sign on Leigh's door:
He asked if my Mom really stays out of my room. I said, "Sure, if I keep things picked up." Mom is not a snoop. (55.5)
Mom trusts Leigh to take care of his own room, and Leigh trusts his mom not to barge in and mess with his stuff.
Leigh is always honest with Mr. Fridley, too. Even when he's caught about to kick the lunch bag, he doesn't try to lie his way out or blame someone else.
You never get the feeling that Leigh tries to impress people or pretend to be someone he's not. Like any kid, he'd love for people to think he's the greatest. Even though he fantasizes about getting everyone's attention by having his dad drive him to school in the big truck, you know he's not really the type to do something like that. He's down to earth and says what he thinks and feels.
A pretty good start for an aspiring writer, don't you think?
Problems. Leigh's got 'em.
He starts out not knowing what to do about his family and school problems, but he takes responsibility for them (as opposed to just whining about them). He works pretty hard at fixing them, too. Even though it's Mr. Fridley who gives him the idea for an alarm for his lunch box, and it's the hardware man who shows him which battery to get, it's Leigh who notices the store alarms outside and Leigh who figures out how to put the lunchbox alarm together:
Wow! My alarm went off! The noise was so loud it startled everybody at the table including me and made everyone look around. […] The principal, who always prowls around keeping an eye on things at lunchtime, came over to examine my lunchbox. He said, "That's quite an invention you have there." (49.6-7)
Leigh wants to be a writer, but there's a problem with that, too: he doesn't know how. His solution? To bug the heck out of Mr. Henshaw about his writing, and then practice, practice, practice. He writes faithfully in his diary and learns to get his thoughts and feelings onto the page. And it pays off big time. Leigh has more confidence in his writing and gets a writing award as a bonus. A famous author calls him a real author. Sweet.
Then there's the big problem of Leigh's life: his dad. This one's a lot trickier because it takes two people to have a father/son relationship and, honestly, it doesn't seem to us like Leigh's dad is going to hold up his side of the bargain. The problem-solving part is one-sided; Leigh has to figure out who his dad really is and then adjust his own expectations to fit.
Throughout the book, we see Leigh go from second grade to sixth grade. But there's a lot more to growing up than just getting older. When we first meet him, Leigh is feeling pretty helpless about his family situation. He's fantasizing that things might get back to being like they were before the divorce, and he is a bit of a brat to Mr. Henshaw about having to answer all his questions.
None of that is really out of the ordinary for someone his age. But Leigh matures in some pretty important ways, as we learn through his letters to Mr. Henshaw and his diary entries:
If there's a turning point in all this growing up, it's when Leigh finally gets up the courage to call his dad and hears another boy's voice in the background. At that moment, reality hits him in the face, and he feels sick to his stomach. Here's what he says the next day:
I don't have to pretend to write to Mr. Henshaw anymore. I have learned to say what I think on a piece of paper. And I don't hate my father either. I can't hate him. Maybe things would be easier if I could. (39.1)
Leigh gets through this crisis by opening up to his mom and having a long talk with her (accompanied by plenty of fried chicken and a trip to the beach) about Dad and the divorce. But he's not quite over it yet. The next day, he's so angry he's about to kick someone's lunch bag down the hall when Mr. Fridley stops him just in time. Mr. Fridley tells him that everyone's got problems, not just Leigh. Leigh starts thinking about how hard it is for his dad driving in the snow and how his mom works long hours for not a lot of money. He starts to see the wisdom in Mr. Fridley's words, and it calms him down.
At the end of the book, we see an older and wiser Leigh Botts. He's seen his dad and realizes that there's no way his folks will ever get back together. He finally accepts that his dad will never be a reliable guy who calls when he promises. He even gives Bandit back to his dad to keep him company during those long hours on the road. But it's all kind of okay with Leigh:
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. He had really missed us. I felt sad and a whole lot better at the same time. (60.47)
Sounds kinda great, and not very "medium" at all.