The first third of Dear Mr. Henshaw consists of a series of letters from Leigh Botts to a children's book author. The letters include a month and date, but the year is purposely omitted so as not to date the book. Leigh writes the first letter while he is in second grade, the second in third grade, the third and fourth in fourth grade, and the fifth and sixth in fifth grade. During the second through fifth grades, Leigh lives with his mother and father in a mobile home outside of Bakersfield, California. From the seventh letter on, Leigh is a sixth grader grappling with a move to Pacific Grove on California's central coast, his parents' divorce, and an anonymous lunch bag thief. He lives in a very small house that is "sort of falling apart" and furnished with items from a thrift shop. The house sits on a city street next to a gas station. The contemporary issues in Dear Mr. Henshaw suggest a 1980s setting, but Leigh's emotions and insights are timeless.
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Dear Mr. Henshaw is Cleary's most serious work, and many critics consider it her best. It is clearly a departure in format, style, content, and tone from her usual lighthearted books. The exclusive use of journal entries and letters to Mr. Henshaw makes the novel unique among Cleary's works. This "epistolary" technique was first used in Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740). The only details provided about Leigh, his life, and his family are those revealed in his own letters and diary. The result is a very personal story that seems almost like an autobiography; the reader easily relates to Leigh as he bares his thoughts and feelings through his writing.
With charming style, Cleary conveys Leigh's immaturity in his early letters. Common misspellings ("Keep in tutch") and improper word usage ("I am a great enjoyer of your books") at once amuse the reader and make the character likable. The very first letter, for example, states simply, "My teacher read your book about the dog to our class. It was funny. We licked it." The closings are sometimes humorous as well: "Your friend," "Your friend," "Your best reader," "Your favorite reader," "Disgusted reader," "Your pooped reader," "Still disgusted," "Pooped writer," and "Fooey on you." Some of the postscripts appeal to children, especially:
Then I turned another page and saw Honorable...
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Cleary treats the contemporary issues of divorce and single parenthood with sympathy and realism. She makes clear that even though Leigh longs for his parents to get back together, they never will. For a while, Leigh hates his father. His father has left him, seemingly has forgotten him, and even has a new boy in his life. But after he calms down, Leigh admits, "I don't hate my father either. I can't hate him. Maybe things would be easier if I could." He learns to love his father for his good qualities and to accept both the imperfect man and the divorce.
Cleary portrays Leigh's mother, Bonnie Botts, as a hard-working, caring person who is not given to spoiling her only child. When the television breaks she does not get it fixed because she wants Leigh to find other activities to occupy himself. She sometimes works long hours at her catering job and also takes college courses in nursing. Although she can provide only a small, old home and few extras, she clearly wants the best for her son. She encourages his friendships, creativity, writing, and thinking.
The author handles the subjects of divorce and single parenthood honestly and positively, and though the father's weaknesses are evident, few adults would object to Cleary's realistic portrayal of modern relationships.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Why are only Leigh Botts's letters included in the book? Why are there no replies from Mr. Henshaw?
2. What is Mr. Henshaw's attitude toward children who write him letters? What is his attitude toward Leigh in particular?
3. How is the setting in Dear Mr. Henshaw important to the story?
4. Why does Angela Badger like A Day on Dad's Rig even though it is a description and not a complete story?
5. After trying so hard to catch the lunch bag thief, why does Leigh not want to know his identity?
6. Do you think Leigh would still describe himself as "the mediumest boy in the class" at the end of the book?
7. What do the monarch butterflies symbolize?
8. What is lacking in Leigh's story about the ten-foot-tall wax truck driver? Who might the wax man represent?
9. Why is Leigh unable to finish his thank-you to his father for the twenty dollars? Why is he finally able to write the thank-you?
10. Leigh misses his dog Bandit, and when his father loses him, he feels heartsick. Why, then, when Bandit is found, does he give the dog back to his father?
11. Does the author show weaknesses in the characters of the mother and the father?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Divorce is a common ending to modern marriages. How does divorce influence Leigh's life and emotions? Is that an accurate depiction of the effects of divorce on a child?
2. Dear Mr. Henshaw is written as a series of letters and diary entries. Discuss how this format is effective or ineffective.
3. Bill Botts is shown to have both good and bad qualities. In what ways is he a good father? A bad father?
4. Bonnie Botts thinks that television viewing is "rotting" Leigh's brain. Many adults believe that television is detrimental to young viewers. Do you agree?
5. Examine the early letters and diary entries. Compare them to the later letters and diary pages. In what ways does the main character mature over the course of the book? How is this maturing process demonstrated?
6. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, the Widow Douglas and Aunt Sally try to "sivilize" Huck Finn, but he rejects their attempts. In Dear Mr. Henshaw, how does Bonnie Botts try to civilize Leigh? Is she successful? Was she successful at civilizing Leigh's father?
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Many of Cleary's books have been adapted to other media. Miller-Brody produced a filmstrip version of Dear Mr. Henshaw in 1984. Also available on filmstrip is Meet the Newbery Author: Beverly Cleary (Random House/Miller- Brody). Among her books for younger readers, The Mouse and the Motorcycle (1965) was made into a two-part movie by Churchill Films for ABC-TV in 1987, and a film version of Runaway Ralph (1970) was completed by Churchill Films in 1988. Three of the seven Ramona booksÂRamona Quimby, Age 8; Ramona and Her Mother; and Ramona ForeverÂserved as the basis for a ten-part public television production that aired first in Canada and then in the United States in 1988....
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For Further Reference
Cleary, Beverly. "Newbery Medal Acceptance." Horn Book 60 (August 1984): 429-438. This speech is filled with information about Cleary's past, her opinions about children and modern society, her reasons for writing Dear Mr. Henshaw, and readers' reactions to the book.
Commire, Anne. Something about the Author. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale Research, 1971. The entry on Beverly Cleary includes personal and career information as well as an account of her philosophy of writing.
Fuller, Muriel, ed. More Junior Authors. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1963. Includes an enlightening autobiographical sketch of Cleary.
Gillespie, John T., and Christine B. Gilbert, eds. Best Books for...
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