Sunday, May 1, 2011

Dear Mr. Henshaw

written by Beverly Cleary
illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

How do you deal with your parents getting a divorce?  Moving and going to a new school....  Never hearing from your father when he says he is going to call....  Learning your dad is spending his time with someone else’s son....  How can any child possibly cope with all of this?  Well, Beverly Cleary has figured it out with her Newberry winning book Dear Mr. Henshaw. 
Leigh Botts was living with his mother and was a new kid at school.  His teacher had given the class an assignment to write an author and ask him/her questions.  Naturally, Leigh had chosen Boyd Henshaw because he had been a fan of his since second grade.  Boyd Henshaw responds to his questions with humor but also sends Leigh a set of questions to answer.  As a result of the TV not working, Boyd decides to respond to the questions from Henshaw. 
The story begins with letters from Leigh to Mr. Henshaw over three years.  The letters show the increasing emotions and the growth of Leigh as a writer.  As the book progresses, the format changes from letters to Mr. Henshaw to diary entries.  There is the suggestion that Mr. Henshaw writes back to Leigh and encourages him to write in his journal every day.  Initially, Leigh writes “Dear Mr. Pretend Henshaw.”  He grows as a writer and moves toward journal entries without addressing them to someone. 
The diary exposes the loneliness that Leigh feels with his father not actively involved in his life, the trouble of someone stealing the “good stuff” from his lunch every day, and the fact that his parents will not be getting back together.  Leigh has to try to come to terms with the fact that even though his parents still care for each other, they are living different lives now and there isn’t a chance that it will go back to the way it used to be.
The issues that Leigh experiences are real and many children will be able to relate to this story.  There is a lot that children can identify with in this book.  So, how does Cleary help Leigh deal with all of his emotions?  By writing, which would be therapeutic for any child experiencing any difficulty in their life. 
I was thinking about reluctant readers and was thinking this might be a good book for some of them.  The short diary entries with larger font will be enticing to them.  It is also about divorce which many children are familiar with or curious about.   Not to mention the fact that this is a well written book. 
The illustrations by Paul O. Zelinsky appear to be pencil or charcoal.  There is a great illustration on the title page as Leigh is writing in his journal.  He is sitting on his bed in his room and above his head are the many thoughts and issues that he is grappling with.  A tractor trailer, as his dad travels across the country and is never there for him.  The school custodian raising the flag, who has come to be friends with Leigh.  The lunchbox that someone keeps steeling his treats from.  His dog that now lives with his dad, the kids at school and the butterfly garden.  All of these thoughts in his head are presented at an angle suggesting the emotion or tension that he has attached to all of the people.  The dog is presented sitting upright and happy which suggests stability. 
Although the topic of divorce is a social issue, I feel this book is appropriate for children.  Not only can children identify with it, they can also learn how to cope with their own emotional issues.

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