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Sara Beth West

(@fiftytwowest)

is a reader and a writer, offering book reviews and interviews with leading writers and thinkers.

63: Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary #Newbery100

2022 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Newbery Medal. In honor of this momentous event, I launched a project to read through each award-winner, starting with some background on the award and with commentary on the first medal winner: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon. Today I take up the 1984 recipient: Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary.

George Orwell's1984 may have foretold a scarily accurate version of the future, but he got the dates a bit wrong. The real 1984 was a whole lot more Tetris than Thought Police, more David Bowie than Doublethink. And it was the year of these celebrated titles:


Winner: Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary (Morrow) Honor Books:

The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare (Houghton)

A Solitary Blue by Cynthia Voigt (Atheneum)

Sugaring Time by Kathryn Lasky (Macmillan)

The Wish Giver: Three Tales of Coven Tree by Bill Brittain (Harper)


Members of the 1984 Newbery Medal Selection Committee: Chair Elizabeth M. Greggs, Rebecca T. Bingham, Shirley A. Fitzgibbons, Margaret A. Grazier, Marilyn W. Greenberg, Elizabeth C. Hoke, Brenda V. Johnson, Mary D. Lankford, M.W. Litherbury, Debra McLeod, Hughes Moir, Celia Morris, Jacqueline G. Morris, Linda A. Perkins, Teresa G. Poston.


When Beverly Cleary passed away in March, the outpouring from her readers centered around one character: Ramona Quimby. Not Henry Huggins, the protagonist who turned her from librarian into writer, and certainly not Leigh Botts from her 1984 Newbery Medal winner Dear Mr. Henshaw. Cleary's Ramona books had twice been recognized with Newbery honor designations (in 1978 for Ramona and Her Father and in 1982 for Ramona Quimby, Age 8), but the medal was awarded for the book most unlike the rest: an epistolary novel, mixing letters and journal entries written by young Leigh Botts.


Dear Mr. Henshaw is not as funny or brash or joyful as the rest of Cleary's work. Leigh's parents have just divorced, and his father (and his dog Bandit) are no longer part of his life, except for occasional awkward phone calls and postcards. He struggles with loneliness (new school), anger (his dad makes promises he will not keep), and frustration (someone keeps stealing the good stuff out of his lunchbox!), and the moments of levity are quieter, more implied than expressed.


In some ways, Dear Mr. Henshaw feels a little like when Denzel Washington won Best Actor for Training Day. Everyone knows that Malcolm X and The Hurricane were the more impressive performances just like everyone recognizes the genius of runner-up Ramona. But Dear Mr. Henshaw deserves more credit than that. The Newbery committee has strict instructions to only consider the current work and to disregard any past successes (or failures) for the author. As possible confirmation of their focus, note that Cynthia Voight was an honoree in 1984 after winning the medal the year before. Had they been allowing former titles to weigh in, they may have chosen to "let someone else win." Instead, they are tasked with coming to consensus (itself an extraordinarily difficult task) on the most distinguished titles published that year. And Dear Mr. Henshaw sets itself apart in countless ways.


First, as Cleary herself noted in her acceptance speech, this book is decidedly written for the young reader. She explains,

We talk about excellence in children's books and their place in the mainstream of literature, but say little about readers. There are those who feel that children need not be considered when evaluating their books. I am not one of them.

This commitment to her readers is what makes her work so important and so enduring. It is her success in "engaging young readers and capturing the world as children saw and understood it" that is celebrated in the 2021 U.S. Senate Resolution honoring her life and legacy It is her ability to remember the girl she was and to tell ordinary stories about children playing and getting into trouble and imagining and feeling inexplicable feelings.


There are brilliant and wonderful writers for young people that cannot capture voice like she could. She reveals the innermost workings of a child's mind and heart like no other, and Dear Mr. Henshaw is an excellent example of this gift. Besides that, it demonstrates a truly remarkable level of control in a unique format. It's not my favorite Beverly Cleary, but it's no Training Day.


Dear Mr. Henshaw opens with a letter from 2nd-grader Leigh Botts to his favorite author, Boyd Henshaw. Henshaw is fictional, but he strikes me as being a thinly veiled version of Cleary herself, who admits to having received countless letters like the ones from Leigh AND to wishing she could write the books like Henshaw's Ways to Amuse a Dog. The rest of the first half (or so) of the book is letters from Leigh to Mr. Henshaw over the years. We are not shown any replies from the beloved author, but his responses are brilliantly inferred through Leigh's return letters. Around the midpoint of the book, after Mr. Henshaw makes the suggestion, Leigh writes his "letters" to a journal instead of mailing them to the busy writer, making Dear Mr. Henshaw an epistolary novel in two ways.


I know of no other Newbery title that attempts such a form, and Cleary's skill is evident in every short piece. The only way we learn something of Leigh Botts and his life is through these letters, and her ability to unfold the layers of detail without being transparent is tremendous. 3rd-grader Leigh tells Mr. Henshaw about his dog Bandit. One page later, 4th-grader Leigh writes,

Around here growunups, who are mostly real old with cats, get mad if dogs aren't on leashes every minute. I hate living in a mobile home park.

And one more page later, 6th-grader Leigh explains that he is in a new school in a different town. Leigh doesn't explain his parents' divorce; he just says that his dad and Bandit aren't there anymore. Similarly, Leigh doesn't complain or whine about feeling overlooked or lonely, but he does write,

I am just a plain boy. This school doesn't say I am Gifted and Talented, and I don't like soccer very much the way everybody at this school is supposed to. I am not stupid either.

-- a passage so tender and revealing and matter-of-fact that it almost hurts.


The book isn't perfect. There are spots where Cleary's hand gets a little heavy, especially as Leigh is "learning" about writing (or including diacritical pronunciation marks in his letters), but overall Dear Mr. Henshaw does what Cleary does best: it reveals, page by page, a truth about a child, unique and complicated. And even though Cleary would be considered a decidedly conservative writer by today's standards, in 1983 she stood apart. Just by tackling the issue of divorce without any happily-ever-after reconciliation was relatively groundbreaking at the time. To make her writerly, introverted protagonist a boy represented a real departure.


Cleary was determined to write books about "ordinary" life, which to her, meant white, middle-class suburbia. By no means does she offer something to everyone, and Dear Mr. Henshaw may now have reached a level of disconnect as to be almost obsolete. With references to getting the TV repaired or the "ping-ping" of the gas station next door, Dear Mr. Henshaw is now more historical artifact than mirror. And while I will always prefer Ramona, especially for the permission she gave this often-impulsive girl to be fully herself, I know there are likely adults who are equally thankful for Leigh Botts and his letters.

The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to send me a message. I promise a reply. 

 

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