Study Guide

Dear Mr. Henshaw Themes

  • Family

    Is a family still a family when it's cut in half? That's the question Beverly Cleary tackles in Dear Mr. Henshaw. Cleary wrote this book for all kids, but mostly for the large number of kids whose parents have divorced and who are faced with a sudden and drastic change in their lives.

    Leigh remembers what his family was like when his parents were together, and he spends a lot of time trying to figure out why his parents got divorced. He wonders if his dad still cares about him, and he feels hurt and lost when his dad doesn't call or visit. In coming to terms with his relationship with his dad, Leigh develops relationships with Mr. Henshaw and Mr. Fridley, who become father and grandfather figures in his life. And of course, his mom is there for him every step of the way.

    So is a family still a family when half of it is missing? Yep, says Beverly Cleary. Leigh's story shows us that love is what makes a family, and that friends and mentors can help fill in the missing pieces.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why does Leigh say, "I wonder if Dad will marry the pizza boy and his mother" (50.4)? Obviously his dad is not going to marry the pizza boy, so why does Leigh include him?
    2. In what ways are Mr. Fridley and Mr. Henshaw like father figures to Leigh? How is it possible that someone who isn't your family can be like family?
    3. Are Leigh, Mom, and Dad still a family after the divorce?

    Chew on This

    Mom turns down Dad's offer to come back home because she knows they still wouldn't be the kind of family she wants.

    Even though Mr. Henshaw and Mr. Fridley aren't related to Leigh (and he hasn't even met Mr. H.), they often act more like a dad than his real dad does.

  • Identity

    Who am I? Where do I belong? Where will I fit in?

    If you've ever asked yourself those questions, congratulations—you're a psychologist, and you're thinking about the complicated question of identity. Identity seems really simple: it's who a person is, right? Describing a person's identity, however, can be complex; it includes their name, interests, personality, social group, family, and actions. Add to this the fact that everyone is constantly changing, especially when they're a young person growing up (literally and figuratively).

    In Dear Mr. Henshaw, Leigh tells the reader early on that he's "just a plain boy" (10.3), nothing special, but we sure learn otherwise. Throughout the story, he's thinking hard about who his family is, who he is in relation to the other kids at school, and who he is as a writer. Sounds like some serious contemplation for a sixth-grade psychologist.

    Questions About Identity

    1. What does Leigh's family have to do with how he thinks about himself?
    2. How do we see Leigh's identity change throughout the book?
    3. Why is Dad's job so much a part of his identity?
    4. Being "medium" is part of Leigh's identity. How did he get this self-image? Is it realistic? Helpful?

    Chew on This

    Leigh's mom said he was a loner, which is just his nature and that won't change.

    Leigh didn't feel like an author until his work was published in the school magazine.

  • Coming of Age

    Older and wiser.

    That's our boy Leigh by the end of Dear Mr. Henshaw.

    Coming of age is all about growing up, but it has less to do with buying bigger clothes than it does with all the stuff that's going on inside in the general vicinity of the head and heart. For Leigh, this stuff is happening fast in sixth grade as he deals with his parents' divorce, figures out his relationship with his dad, and deals with being the new kid in school. Loss, fear, loneliness, anger—that's a lot for any kid to deal with. But it's facing those things that makes us grow up emotionally and socially.

    As the story progresses, we see Leigh's thinking change from childish ("the truck is why my parents got divorced") to more mature and complex. For young kids, things tend to be black or white. The truth about life is that it's not like that at all. It's much more difficult for Leigh to learn to be okay with mixed feelings about his dad, but it's a sign that he's growing up.

    Just wish being older and wiser wasn't so darned hard.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. Leigh responds to his dad in one way at the beginning of the book and a different way at the end. What changes in Leigh to create these different responses?
    2. What role does Mr. Fridley play in Leigh's maturation?
    3. How does Mom help Leigh deal with things in a more mature way?

    Chew on This

    Growing up is inevitable, and Leigh would have turned out the same in the end even if his parents had stayed together and he'd had no problems at school.

    Facing problems makes Leigh grow up more quickly.

  • Literature and Writing

    Letters and diaries and stories, oh my.

    This story is saturated in writing. The whole book is written in an epistolary/diary form, for starters. The main character is an avid reader who wants to be a writer, his idol is an author, and one of his main goals is to win a writing contest. There's a ton of great advice about the writing process and insights into the life of an author. Plus, one of the ways we know Leigh is growing up is by seeing how his diary writing gets more detailed, descriptive, and insightful.

    Writing is an outlet for Leigh to express himself, and reading Mr. Henshaw's books teaches him a few things about coping with his own life. It's fun to see the book's author (Beverly Cleary, not Mr. Henshaw) including all these ideas about writing that she's learned from her own experience. She uses the character of Mr. Henshaw to get these ideas across to Leigh and to us.

    Pretty clever of Cleary to masquerade as Boyd Henshaw. We bet she hoped that people who read Dear Mr. Henshaw would grab a pen and start writing their own letters and diaries and stories.

    Did you? Oh my.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. What makes Leigh's winning story so great? What was wrong with the wax man story?
    2. What makes a good writer?
    3. What's the best advice Mr. Henshaw gives about writing?
    4. What role does Ways to Amuse a Dog play in the story?

    Chew on This

    Leigh's love of writing comes from his love of reading.

    By writing a book about writing, the author is encouraging kids to…write. Isn't Shmoop a genius?

  • Perseverance

    You know what they say: when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

    That's not how the saying goes? Sorry, it must have been an old joke we heard once. Let's try that again.

    When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Perseverance, persistence, tenacity, grit—whatever you call it, it means sticking with something even when it's hard and doesn't work out at first. In Dear Mr. Henshaw, Leigh perseveres in this story with his writing, communicating with Mr. Henshaw, fighting the lunchbox bandit, and figuring out what his relationship with his dad will look like after the divorce. Persevering is hard work, but it pays off with a writing award, a close relationship with Mr. Henshaw, a safe lunch, and a better understanding of his dad.

    Keep on keepin' on: that's what our guy does. Leigh is a perseverance superhero.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. What are all the things Leigh perseveres at? Does everything end in success?
    2. What do Leigh, Mom, and Dad want badly enough to pursue even when it's tough? If you could give them a Perseverance Rating from 1 to 10, how would you rate each of them and why?
    3. How does the ability to persevere help Leigh grow up?

    Chew on This

    If Leigh hadn't bugged Mr. Henshaw with endless letters, he would have never heard from him.

    At first, Leigh's mom has to provide constant motivation for Leigh to answer Mr. Henshaw's questions. It's a sign of his growing maturity that eventually he writes in his diary every couple of days.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    Don't fence me in: that old cowboy song is Dad's motto. He loves the freedom of the open road and not having to account for anyone but himself. Here's the thing, Dad: that's not cool when you're married, and your wife and son need you at home.

    In Dear Mr. Henshaw, Beverly Cleary doesn't criticize Dad for loving his freedom. She knows that feeling free to do as you please can be pretty great, and that some people just need that more than others. We hear about how exhilarating it is for Dad to ride high in his truck through the beautiful scenery and open desert. And Leigh complains like crazy about being forced to do things like answer all Mr. Henshaw's questions and clean mildew off the bathroom walls.

    Still, the author's message in the book is that growing up demands certain commitments. You have to give up some freedoms to be part of a family. Leigh learns that; his dad doesn't.

    Move over, Dad, there's a new grownup in town.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. How do Mom and Dad view freedom and confinement? How do these views conflict with each other?
    2. Do you think Dad could ever give up the freedom of the road and settle down with Mom and Leigh?
    3. What does Leigh learn about his dad's need for freedom? How does that make him feel?

    Chew on This

    Dad sees being married and settled like it's a jail sentence.

    To Mom, real freedom means not having to worry about a life that's unpredictable and unstable.

  • Isolation

    Being the new kid in town—ugh.

    In Dear Mr. Henshaw, Leigh Botts is that new kid. He's kind of a loner, and he's a bit timid/shy/introverted (take your pick). Plus, he's just lost his dad and his dog because of a divorce, his mom works a lot, and he's an only child. All this is a recipe for feeling pretty isolated. On the plus side, the isolation leads to several great things: he writes a lot, develops a relationship with Mr. Fridley, and strikes up a pen-pal relationship with his favorite author.

    Leigh has a very active inner life to keep him company. He likes to read, write, and think about things, and that helps him get through the lonely times. But none of us can just live inside our heads, so we're happy for Leigh when he becomes more comfortable at school and makes a great friend.

    Being the not-so-new kid in town? Much better.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. What are the benefits to Leigh's isolation? What are the downsides?
    2. Who else in the story struggles with feeling isolated?
    3. Do you think Leigh's personality contributes to his loneliness?

    Chew on This

    Beverly Cleary's message is that books are very good company.

    Leigh loves to read, but friends are still better company.

  • Desires

    As the famous philosopher Mick Jagger taught us, you can't always get what you want.

    Everyone wants things. In Dear Mr. Henshaw, Leigh wants friends, all of his lunch, a relationship with his dad, and a whole family. His mom wants money, a stable home, and to move on in life after divorce. Dad wants freedom and relationships, though he doesn't know how to go about hanging on to that last one. We're rooting for Leigh to get what he wants as he struggles to figure out life, school, and his parents. And it's interesting to see how the story doesn't wrap itself up neatly like a Disney movie but is instead very true to the messiness of real life.

    You might not always get what you want, but as Dr. Jagger concluded long ago—if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.

    Questions About Desires

    1. Is it a bad thing for Leigh to want something he can't have?
    2. Is it possible for both Leigh and Dad to get what they want?
    3. Does Dad want a relationship with Leigh and Mom? How can you tell? How does this affect Leigh and Mom?

    Chew on This

    If it weren't for wanting things, Leigh would have no motivation to change.

    What Leigh wants and how he goes about getting it tells a lot about his character.