Literature / Dear Mr Henshaw

Dear Mr. Henshaw is a 1983 children's epistolary novel by Beverly Cleary, with illustrations by Paul O. Zelinsky. Winning the Newbery Medal in 1984, the novel's plot is significantly more dramatic than the Ramona Quimby series.

Leigh Botts, the novel's protagonist, is a sixth-grader who's a rabid fan of fictional children's book author Boyd Henshaw. He first sends a letter to him in the second grade, sending a few more occasionally until the sixth grade, where he gets an assignment to ask his favourite author ten questions. Naturally, he asks Mr. Henshaw, who sends back playful answers that annoy not only Leigh, but also his teacher. One good thing, however, does come out of the assignment - it encourages Leigh to keep a diary, which he addresses to "Mr. Pretend Henshaw". Thus begins the story of Leigh's parents divorce and his struggle to come to terms with it.

A sequel, Strider, released in 1991, got mediocre reviews and has mostly been ignored.

This novel contains examples of:

  • Alliterative Name: Leigh's parents' names are Bill and Bonnie Botts; his mother thinks they sound like names from a newspaper strip.
  • The B Grade: Leigh gets an A minus on his Ways To Amuse A Dog assignment in fifth grade. His teacher says the minus is for not standing on both feet.
  • A Boy and His X: Leigh and Bandit, a dog that climbed into Bill's truck one day and decided to tag along.
  • Brand X: Leigh mentions he lives near a "Taco King" and a "Softee Freeze".
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Leigh does this to Bill a few times, like when he chews him out for calling him "kid" all the time. Given that Bill isn't the world's greatest parent (although he's definitely not on Abusive Parents levels), it's justified.
  • Darker and Edgier: Well, for a Beverly Cleary book, anyway. The worst thing that ever happened to Ramona was Susan copying her owl.
  • Death by Newbery Medal: Played with. While certainly nobody dies, the same "mature" themes of most Newbery Medal winning novels (divorce, deadbeat dads, etc.) are still there.
  • Delivery Not Desired: He's not dead, but the second half is a diary, rather than letters to Mr. Henshaw. Leigh keeps beginning the entries "Dear Mr. Pretend Henshaw" because he's used to it and it makes it easier for him to write.
  • Diary: Played with in that the novel doesn't start out as one - it begins as a series of letters, transitioning into diary format later.
  • Disappeared Dad: Leigh's father Bill, whose absence is explained by him being a trucker and his messy divorce from Mom.
  • Divorce Is Temporary: Averted. Even though Leigh desperately wants his parents to get back together, and there are still feelings on both sides of the spectrum, his mom refuses, because she knows it will only end the same way - that is, badly.
  • Embarrassing First Name: Well, he's not that embarrassed by it in-universe, but still... for a boy, Leigh?! (His mom gives the explanation that she wanted a "fancy" name. Not that that makes it any better...)
  • Epistolary Novel: Until Leigh decides to keep a diary, anyway.
  • The Gadfly: Boyd Henshaw, if the "answers" he gives to Leigh for the assignment are anything to go by.
  • Gender-Blender Name: Again, Leigh Botts. Leigh.
  • The Ghost: Mr. Henshaw himself, which is quite ironic considering his name is in the title.
  • Good Parents: Leigh's mom, Bonnie. Bill, on the other hand...
  • Have a Gay Old Time: When he ventures to a butterfly grove near his town, Leigh sees a sign that reads "$50 fine for molesting butterflies", and wonders why anyone would want to molest a butterfly. It's pretty obvious the word isn't being used in the sense readers are most familiar with, but Leigh's thoughts could prove otherwise...
  • Karma Houdini: About halfway through the book, a subplot emerges about a thief who steals items from people's lunchboxes, namely Leigh's desserts from Mom. The thief is never caught, nor does anyone figure out who it is. On the other hand, the thief stops stealing Leigh's lunch.
  • MacGyvering: Leigh does this to try to catch whoever's been swiping his lunch items. He doesn't figure out who it is, but he does make a pretty cool, if incredibly loud and bulky, lunchbox burglar alarm.
  • The Mentor: Mr. Fridley, the school janitor, who's more of a father figure to Leigh than Bill, his actual dad. (Starting to see a pattern here?)
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Angela Badger bears more than a passing similarity to Judy Blume.
  • No Name Given: The boy on that one phone call to Dad, who Leigh nicknames "Pizza Boy".
  • Parental Neglect: Downplayed with Bill; he doesn't completely ignore Leigh (he did remember to buy him a nice leather coat in time for Christmas, after all), but he often forgets to send Bonnie monthly child support checks, forgets to call Leigh on the regular, and it's heavily implied he doesn't even bother to remember Leigh's name.
  • Secondary Character Title: Again, Mr. Henshaw is more of a plot device than a character.
  • Shown Their Work: The trucking elements and lingo are surprisingly accurate.
  • Show Within a Show: The books written by Boyd Henshaw and Angela Badger, of course. The story Leigh pens for the contest also counts.
  • Slice of Life: Like almost all of Cleary's novels.
  • Straw Fan: Averted with Leigh; he's portrayed realistically despite being a huge Boyd Henshaw fanboy.
  • You Called Me "X"; It Must Be Serious: At the novel's end, the main sign Bill has become closer to his son is him calling him "Leigh", instead of "kid", without being prompted.

Tropes for Strider include

  • Affectionate Nickname: Geneva calls Leigh "Joseph" several times because of the shirt he's wearing that used to belong to Paul.
  • Age-Appropriate Angst: Leigh struggles with Barry about taking care of Strider, with keeping his grades up, and with his feelings for Geneva.
  • Berserk Button: A minor one; Strider hates being told to "sit" until the end of the book. He then lies down and makes Puppy-Dog Eyes. To get around this, Leigh and Barry write up "SIT" and "STAY" on signs and train Strider to follow those commands.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Strider's daily runs with the boys. Leigh gets stamina, which allows him to outrun Paul and later earn him a spot on the track team.
  • Grammar Nazi: Leigh's first English teacher in the book, Ms. Habis-Jones (whom Leigh privately calls "Old Wounded-Hair"), is one of these. Perhaps the most notable example is when he writes a paragraph featuring two people who don't speak with perfect grammar, and she tells him to change it so they are speaking the way she wants. When he protests that doing so would make it incorrect (because people don't speak perfectly in real life), she scolds him and tells him he needs to fix his attitude. Luckily, his next English teacher is far nicer.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • The landlady gives permission for Leigh to keep Strider, on the condition that he clean up the dog's messes. She also suggests that he build a fence so that Strider doesn't have to be locked up all day.
    • Leigh's dad comes and helps Leigh build a fence for Strider.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Paul and Leigh develop into this by the end of the book. They both enjoy running on track, and Paul isn't really mad about losing his shirt to a thrift store.