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Literature / Dear Mr. Henshaw

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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 was released in 1991. Consensus among reviews was that, although it was fine on its own merits, it fell short of the emotional intensity of Dear Mr. Henshaw. It has received comparatively little attention.

Dear Mr. Henshaw 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.
  • Bland-Name Product: Leigh mentions he lives near a "Taco King" and a "Softee Freeze".
  • A Boy and His X: Leigh and Bandit, a dog that climbed into Bill's truck one day and decided to tag along. The dog usually is on the road with Bill, and when he disappears at one point, Leigh does not take it well. Bill returns Bandit at the end of the book, but Leigh — as a sign of his growth — encourages his dad to keep the dog with him for company.
  • 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 her cat dying, and she somehow got over that in an afternoon anyway.
  • Death by Newbery Medal: Played with. While 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.
  • Disappeared Dad: Leigh's father Bill, whose absence is explained by him being a trucker and his messy divorce from Mom.
  • 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, but not too fancy, on account of the kid having the last name of Botts. Not that that makes it any better...)
  • Epistolary Novel: Until Leigh decides to keep a diary, anyway. He starts out by writing letters to Mr. Henshaw, before switching to a journal.
  • The Gadfly: Boyd Henshaw, if the "answers" he gives to Leigh for the assignment are any indication.
  • Gender-Blender Name: Again, Leigh Botts. Leigh. When he writes his first letter to Mr. Henshaw in second grade, he makes a point of specifying that he's a boy.
  • 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 with which readers are most familiar, but Leigh's amusement suggests that's how he's interpreting it.
  • 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, and as soon as the thefts stop Leigh forgives the unknown thief.
  • 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, and it does put an end to the thieving.
  • 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?)
  • Nice Girl: Bonnie's catering coworker Katy; she gives Bonnie gourmet treats for Leigh's lunchbox and invites people to her home for Christmas when they have nowhere else to go. Bonnie says that the woman has "a heart the size of a football stadium."
  • 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, whom 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 that he doesn't even bother to remember Leigh's name.
  • Plagiarism in Fiction: At one point after he starts keeping a diary instead of writing to Boyd Henshaw on a regular basis, Leigh enters a story contest, with the top three winners getting to meet a certain famous author. His story "A Day on Dad's Rig" wins Honorable Mention; later, the second-place winner was revealed to have copied their winning poem out of a book and lost their prize as a result, and Leigh gets to go in their place.
  • Scrapbook Story: The book starts as an Epistolary Novel, featuring the letters written from Leigh Botts to Boyd Henshaw, but later switches to Leigh's diary for most of the second half of the book. During this time, he still periodically writes real letters to Henshaw for advice on writing, but they're few and far between.
  • 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.
    • "A Day on Dad's Rig," Leigh's story for the writing contest, is described as being this. When Angela Badger mentions that she read it, this is one of the reasons she cites for really liking it.
  • Stylistic Suck: Leigh's first letter to Mr. Henshaw, which he wrote in second grade, has many grammar and spelling errors. As he gets older the errors become fewer and further between and by "present day" he doesn't make any.
  • The Unreveal: Leigh never finds out who the lunchbox thief is, but at least he or she stops taking his snacks. Leigh admits he would rather not know because the thief is one of his classmates, and he forgives the unknown thief once the thefts stop.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: There are elements of this to Leigh's relationship with Bill. It's a particularly heartwarming moment when Leigh shows Bill the lunchbox alarm and explains what happened, and Bill replies, "I always knew I had a smart kid."
  • 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.

Strider contains examples of:

  • A Boy and His X: The story is about Leigh and Strider. When Leigh's father comes over to visit and brings their old dog Bandit with him, Leigh thinks about how much more 'his' dog Strider is than Bandit ever was.
  • Affectionate Nickname: Geneva calls Leigh "Joseph" several times because of his "coat of many colors" - that is, the many-colored shirt he's wearing that used to belong to Paul.
  • Age-Appropriate Angst: Several examples.
    • Leigh struggles with Barry about taking care of Strider, with keeping his grades up, and with his feelings for Geneva. He is also becoming aware of how tough things are for his mother and worries about making them easier for her.
    • Barry struggles with his divorced-on-bad-terms parents having joint custody over him. Spending the summer in Los Angeles with his father leads to Strider becoming much closer to Leigh, which leads to a falling out between the boys.
  • Amazon Chaser: A mild case with Leigh and Geneva. She wants to be a hurdler but isn't very good at it. She practices hard though, and Leigh, who has a class in a second floor room looking over the track, watches her every day and comes down with a crush, partly over her determination.
  • Beige Prose: Enforced. Leigh's English teacher lectures the class on having "too much fat in their prose" and gives them a writing assignment in which they're not allowed to use prepositions. Leigh writes about his experiences running track, and his final paper includes sentences like "Sun shines." and "I rejoice."
  • 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.
  • Brick Joke: Early in the book, Leigh comments that Geneva's red hair would look 'really good in a sweater'. Much later, she gets a short haircut for track and gives him a few locks to weave into a sweater.
  • 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.
  • Meaningful Name: Strider gets his name because of how much he likes to run and how fast he was.
  • 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.
  • Shoo the Dog: Leigh decides that he shouldn't have Strider anymore and gives him to Barry. Strider jumps the fence and comes back to Leigh, and Barry decides to give Leigh 'full dog custody' after that.
  • The Tetris Effect: Leigh gets a job sweeping floors. He says he feels like he can see the floors' tile pattern in his sleep.
  • Troll: Leigh is so tired of Ms. Habis-Jones carping on grammar that when given a writing assignment, he deliberately writes in dialect. Of course, she either misses the point or doesn't care and gives him a bad grade.
  • 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.
  • Write What You Know: In-universe, Leigh tends to write about dogs and running track. While he's doing this, Beverly Cleary is out-of-universe writing about learning to write.