Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary tells the story of Leigh Botts who lives with his mother while his father works as a trucker. He struggles with his parent’s divorce and conflicts at school while he also tries to develop as a writer. This book won the John Newbery Medal for The Most Distinguished Contribution to American Literature for Children.
The story is first told through a series of letters that Leigh sends to his favorite author, Boyd Henshaw. Later he primarily writes diary entries. My mother gave me this book when I was in fourth grade. When I first tried to read it I did not understand its format. It looked like a collection of letters rather than a story. My mother told me that the story is told through the letters. I tried it again, and after I became accustomed to the format I grew to love the story.
(The story is fragmented because it is told through letters and diary entries, and so this summary will be a bit fragmented. I have done what I can to smooth it out without compromising the story.)
Leigh writes his first letter to author Boyd Henshaw when he is in second grade. At this point his parents, Bill and Bonnie, are already divorced. He writes to Henshaw a few more times in third, fourth, and fifth grade. When he is in sixth grade he writes more consistently. He also sends Henshaw a list of questions for a class report. Henshaw does not respond in time and then sends silly answers and his own list of questions. Leigh is angered by the silly answers, and at first refuses to answer the questions, but his mother insists. Through the answers we learn more about Leigh.
Leigh is an average boy: average height and not athletic, not especially gifted but not dumb either. His parents’ marriage suffered because Bill’s payments to buy his rig made it impossible for the family to move out of their mobile home. Bonnie also did not like not knowing where he was when he drove cross-country. After the divorce, Leigh and Bonnie moved into a small house in Pacific Grove, CA. Bonnie now works part-time for a catering company. Her employer Katy usually sends something special home for Leigh’s school lunch. Bonnie is also studying to be a Licensed Vocational Nurse.
When Leigh’s parents divorced, Bill took their dog Bandit because Bonnie could not work and care for a dog, and Bandit helps Bill stay awake on long drives. Bandit likes riding. In fact, Bill found him at a truck stop.
Leigh thinks school is okay. He is in a new school, and so he does not have many friends. He wishes some of them would invite him to their house. He does not have a favorite teacher, but he likes the custodian Mr. Fridley. Leigh is also frustrated because someone at school keeps stealing the special item in his lunch that Katy sends home for him.
Sometimes Bonnie needs to leave for work early. Leigh does not like to stay at home alone in the morning, and so he leaves for school. He is not supposed to be on school grounds too early, and so he hides in the bushes. He misses his father and wishes he would show up someday and drive him to school.
Leigh did not want to answer Henshaw’s questions but when he finishes them he realizes he enjoys writing, and Henshaw did tell him that the way to become an author is to write. He considers writing a story called The Great Lunchbag Mystery.
Henshaw suggests he keep a diary. When Leigh tries it his mind is blank, and so Henshaw suggests he pretend he is writing a letter. The next several entries in this book are pretend letters with few real letters to Henshaw.
One day he writes a fake name on his lunch bag to fool the thief, The trick works for a while, but then the thief learns the bag belongs to Leigh. Fridley suggests a burglar alarm (probably making a joke). One day Leigh wraps his bag in tape, but then he struggles to open it at lunch
Leigh is frustrated by his parents divorce, and he and misses his father. He keeps waiting for a Christmas present, and then another trucker delivers a package from Bill. Leigh is also frustrated when his father forgets to send the support check. He asks Bonnie why she does not remarry. She says the right kind of man is hard to find. Leigh worries about how hard she works, and he wonders if his father is not very interested in him.
Leigh’s teacher tells him his school and some other schools will print stories by young writers and that the winner will have lunch with a famous author, She suggests that Leigh write a story. He hopes that the famous author will be Henshaw.
Henshaw previously told Leigh to write like Leigh, not someone else, but Leigh struggles to think of a story that does not sound like another writer. In the meantime he is frustrated because his father forgets to call, despite his promise to call. His mother used to ride with his father before he was born, and so he wonders if the divorce is his fault.
As more days pass without a call from Bill, Leigh grows angry. He is also angry at Bonnie for divorcing Bill. Eventually Leigh cannot wait anymore and calls his father’s home in Bakersfield. Bill is home and answers. He says he lost Bandit while he stopped to put chains on his tires due to snow. He looked until he was forced to leave to avoid being stranded by the highway closure. Leigh then hears another child in the background ask about getting pizza, apparently the son of a new girlfriend. Leigh cannot take it and hangs up.
The next day Leigh feels terrible that his father took another boy out to get pizza. When his mother comes home he tells her about Bandit ans asks why she married Bill and why she stopped loving him. She explains they married too young. She did not have a good life at home, and there was not much to do in her town. When Bill arrived in his big truck she was entranced, and so they went to Las Vegas to be married. She rode with Bill until Leigh was born but grew tired of it, and then Bill was away most of the time. When Leigh learns that his mother grew tired of life on the road he concludes that maybe he is not to blame for the divorce. Bonnie also thinks that maybe she grew up, but Bill did not.
The next day Leigh is angry because his lunch bag was robbed again. He complains to Mr. Fridley that he has no friends at the school. Fridley asks who would want to be a friend to someone who always scowls. A few days later he begins plans to equip a lunch box with an alarm. He also begins a story for the writing contest. Bill sends a letter apologizing for losing Bandit and encloses $20.
Leigh writes to Henshaw asking for help on his story. Henshaw says a character should solve a problem or change. Leigh sees that does not work with his story, and so he considers writing something other than a story. He then returns to writing in his diary.
Leigh borrows books from the school library to study electricity and then uses the $20 to buy parts for a lunch box alarm. The next day at school no one steals from his lunch box. When he opens the box during lunch he sets off the alarm. This attracts attention from teachers, staff, and other students. Another boy, Barry, says he wants an alarm on his bedroom door, and the next day he invites Leigh to his house to help him build one. No one steals from Leigh’s lunch again, and so he stops setting the alarm.
Instead of a story or poem, Leigh decides to write about a time he rode in his father’s truck. He includes details about gear shifting on steep grades, hawks on the telephone lines, and the leaves on the trees.
A few days later he invites Barry to his house for dinner. Barry enjoys a break from his sisters and step-sisters, and Leigh appreciates having a friend.
The next day Leigh asks Bonnie whether Bill will remarry. She doubts he can afford it because of the payments he makes on his truck. Leigh then asks her why she and Bill do not remarry. She says Bill will never grow up.
The next day at school, Leigh looks through the writer’s yearbook. He only won Honorable Mention. He is disappointed, but he is happy to see his name in print. Some of the children who did not win anything at all are angry and say they will never write again, which Leigh thinks is dumb. He also learns that the author is Angela Badger who writes books about girls. Leigh sill wants to meet her because she is a real author.
Later that week Leigh learns that the winning poem had been plagiarized, and so he is given the chance to have lunch with Mrs. Badger instead. At the lunch Leigh sits across from her. While Leigh tries to think of something to say, some girls tell Mrs. Badger they want to write books “exactly like hers.” She then praises Leigh’s work, “A Day on Dad’s Rig” because “it was written by a boy who wrote honestly about something he knew and had strong feelings about” and because it let her feel what it was like to ride in the truck. She compliments him for writing like him and not trying to imitate another author and says that is “one mark of a good writer.” She also tells Leigh about the time she met Henshaw. On the way home Leigh thinks about how Badger called him an author and told him to “keep it up.” When he is at home that night writing in his diary about the events of the day, Leigh wishes his father were home so that he could tell him about it
That weekend Leigh is out with his friend Barry when he sees a truck without a trailer parked outside his house. He runs home and finds his father and Bandit. Bill says he asked about Bandit every day on his CB. He and another driver who found Bandit were at the same weigh station one day, and so Bill retrieved him. When Bonnie arrives at home she invites Bill inside and offers him a cup of coffee. Leigh shows him his lunch box alarm.
While sitting with their coffee Bill tells Bonnie he misses her. He asks her if there is any chance for them. She says “no” because of the lonely days, waiting for calls, and broken promises. When he leaves he tells Leigh he will try to visit more often, but Leigh does not count on it. He offers to let Leigh keep Bandit, but Leigh tells Bill to keep him. After Bill leaves, Leigh feels happy to have seen him, but he feels sad as well.
Dear Mr. Henshaw is an interesting story for many reasons. Leigh struggles with many difficulties common to children, such as needing a friend and adjusting to a new school. The story also explores in depth the difficulty of growing up with divorced parents and missing his father. My parents never divorced, and so I cannot personally identify with Leigh. This story, however, does a great job of showing how hard it is for him.
Leigh learns some important lessons on writing. Henshaw tells him that to learn to be a writer, he needs to “read, look, listen, think, and write.” He also needs to write like him, not someone else. I wonder if Cleary was trying to help young aspiring writers when she wrote this story.
I read this story probably several times as a child, and I enjoyed reading it again as an adult. If you want to encourage your child to read, then I highly recommend this book.