Review of Dear Mr. Henshaw

I’m afraid that Dear Mr. Henshaw written by Beverly Cleary, an author to whom I would normally give higher scores for clever, humorous children’s literature, does not score at all on my list of Must-Read Children’s Lit, and scores low on the well-I-guess-if-you-pick-it-up-it-won’t-hurt-you-too-much category–even though it won the Newbery Medal in 1984.

Story:

Dear Mr. Henshaw is a collection of letters and journal entries that reveal the mixed emotions of Leigh Botts, a 6th-grade boy entering adolescence.  Leigh’s father, a cross-country trucker, divorced his mom, which caused Leigh and his mom to move to a new school district, which thus introduces Leigh’s secondary problem–a mystery thief who steals all the best stuff out of his lunch bag.

Leigh writes to his favorite author for a school project, who encourages him to write more. Leigh’s continued correspondence with the author and then with the pretend author through his journal acts as a catharsis for his anger and sadness over his parents’ break-up.

Positives:

  1. Normally a book that tells a story through journal entries and letters can be dry, but masterful Beverly Cleary makes it interesting and even humorous at times.
  2. You get the idea in the last half that Leigh might be a kid headed toward trouble if he can’t work out his anger regarding the divorce and mystery lunch-thief. Leigh, however, works through these problems in a helpful way: rather than hurting others, he focuses his attention on practicing a new skill–writing–and on studying how to make an alarm for his lunchbox (thereby thwarting the lunch thief problem for the entire school).  He also makes a friend.

Negatives:

  1. The major problem with Dear Mr. Henshaw is its realism (as well as the parts where it departs from realism–I’ll explain.) While a Newbery award is usually a good barometer for judging the excellence of a children’s book, in the last few decades, a Newbery award winner might not necessarily be something you want your children to read. Some of them give a “realistic” look at a theme too depressing or mature for children. Give me a fantasy book that points my children toward eternal realities over realism that dredges them through disappointing sinful realities of this world any day.
  2. The father is portrayed as stupid and irresponsible, a kid who can’t grow up (can always pick on those white males). The mom is wiser, but not from a Christian perspective. The boy is disrespectful to both at times (like posting a sign on his door, “KEEP OUT MOM THAT MEANS YOU.”)
  3. The boy’s answer comes from within himself, an unrealistic solution to the conflict in the book. If this book is attempting to give children a positive alternative to rebellion when dealing with sadness from their parents’ divorce, I doubt that many children will successfully implement it. For example, I doubt that many children will work through their issues by writing long-term the way Leigh did. I also doubt they’ll go further and apply the principle to some other useful method of working through their confusion if writing isn’t their cup o’ tea. Nice idea. But not realistic (in a book that is realistic).
  4. I don’t see this story being helpful to anyone. It’s not uplifting. It’s sad. The boy comments at times, “I hate my father.” At another point, “I was so mad I couldn’t say anything.” His mother tries to explain the father’s error, “‘That’s his way of trying to say he really is sorry about Bandit. [the dog the father lost] He’s just not very good at expressing feelings.’ Mom looked sad and said, ‘Some men aren’t, you know.'”

The ending may be realistic, but it’s depressing. The boy consoles himself after a 15-minute visit from his father: “Maybe it was the broccoli that brought Dad to Salinas, but he had come the rest of the way because he really wanted to see us. He had really missed us. I felt sad and a whole lot better at the same time.”

Some might say that the book is helpful to children who have experienced a painful divorce. But I don’t see realistic books as very helpful in these situations, even though Cleary may be better than most at breaking up the depressing situation with occasional humor.

I read once how when a nation is in war, the citizens don’t want to watch war movies; or when it’s in a depression/recession, they don’t want to watch sad, dark-themed movies. People want to watch something that reminds them of the true happiness we’re all searching for. I’m not saying that we should only read sappy, happy-go-lucky books. But some books on sin are too depressingly real to be helpful, especially for children.

I’ve sometimes heard Christians say that this or that book/movie was “a great picture of depravity!” Okay…how many great pictures of depravity do you need? I think you can skip this one.

Scoring:

Seth attempted to come up with a way to more objectively rate books. 🙂 Well, this book was very difficult for me to rate; rating is certainly subjective and others might not agree. I at first gave Dear Mr. Henshaw 5 points, but felt that was more points than it deserved out of a total of 10, so decreased it to 4. (And even that might be too much.)

0     The book was notable for lacking this category repeatedly.

1     The book dipped into this category at times.

2     The book consistently demonstrated this category.

Fiction Categories:

  • Biblical: Did the author honor Scriptural truth or a Christian worldview even if unwittingly? 0 points: I at first gave it 1 point since it did depict sad consequences for children from parents divorcing; however I took this point away, since a larger issue is that the boy’s answer comes from within himself, rather than from an understanding of biblical truths.
  • Creative: Did the author grip the imagination by inventing characters, situations, or other aspects of reality? 1 point
  • Style: Did the theme, vocabulary, and composition represent an enduring standard? 1 point
  • Credible: Were the characters, plot turns, and relationships believable? 1 point: I explained this above.
  • Affections: Was some truth presented powerfully to the affections? 1 point: This was the most difficult one to rate; but I eventually gave it one point, since it did get across the sadness of divorce for children.

Total: This book gets a 4 out of 10 on my gotta-read scale.

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About Amy

I'm Amy, a missionary wife and mother of four children, blogging about our lives and perspectives on culture in South Africa.
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11 Responses to Review of Dear Mr. Henshaw

  1. kirinjirafa says:

    I love that you and Seth use a Rubric in book reviews. I wanna make one too- I’ve always just sort of journaled them and discussed my reactions, but this is better. I like the objectivity of it.

    Also: “can always pick on those white males” yup. I find helpless, bumbling authority figures to be a cheap and shallow attempt by the author to connect with the reader or make the lead look better.

    • Amy says:

      Ooh, nice word–rubric. Didn’t know to use that here. Feel free to use Seth’s. 🙂 Or start with it and change it to fit your needs. He also has one for non-fiction. We’re still working on it. It’s not perfect, but I don’t know if any one can be totally objective.

  2. I like your rubric too–but I don’t know if I’m a deep enough of a thinker to install one myself. I kind of like it or don’t like it and internally can back up why or why not I like it. But this is right up yours and Seth’s smart brain waves! That being said, I never liked this book either, and won’t allow my kids to read it. I see no reason to make my children worried about a divorce maybe eventually impending on their lives–as this book might start making them think down those lines. I want their heads to be filled with ideas of Godly marriages, of couples who turn to God in crisis and work out their problems with His help. They’ll see enough of divorce without reading a fiction book about it. I understand that many children have these problems in their life, but I don’t know if the book would help them or just make them feel that everybody has these problems and there is no way for it to be different. For my children, it is not an issue and is not dealt with in a Godly manner, so there is no need to read it.

    • Amy says:

      I’ll give the credit to Seth. I didn’t think it up, though I do like the idea. I’m not always crazy about the scoring it comes up with though. And there’s still subjectivity: Seth and I disagreed about how to rate some of the fiction he rated from last year, Scarlet Pimpernel for example. So we might change it, but it helps for now.

      Yes, I seriously doubt that this book would be helpful even to children who have experienced the pain of divorce. There wasn’t much hope offered.

  3. Melissa P. says:

    Thank you for putting your thoughts into words. I also get a general sense of whether I like a book or not when I’m reading it but can’t always put it into words. Maybe I should start journaling my thoughts on each book I read. That might be helpful when asked for a recommendation and for keeping things straight when I’m reading and listening to 4 or 5 at the same time. I enjoy reading your well thought out opinions. It is not often I get to converse with intellectually stimulating people. I enjoy people who make me think.

    I’d be interested to read what you thought about the Scarlet Pimpernel.

    • Amy says:

      I’d love to hear your thoughts on the books you’ve read. Maybe just write down a snippet if there was something especially notable about the book that you want to remember. Our friends review every book they read, but that sort of makes it a chore to me.

      I’ll get to writing about Scarlet Pimpernel some day. 🙂 Seth wrote a little snippet about it on his blog in his book reviews from last year under the fiction section. If you want his reviews from last year, let me know; it’s formatted weirdly on his blog.

  4. Christie says:

    A very interesting review. I’ve heard about it, but not read it. What age is it written for? Thanks for your thoughts!

    • Amy says:

      Good question; sorry I didn’t think to say. A good rule of thumb is to put the age level of the book at the age level of the main characters. Therefore, you might say this book is for 11 to 12 year olds, since Leigh is a 6th grader. You can check this website for listing of the grade level, interest level, and lexile measure of most children’s books. It places Dear Mr. Henshaw at 4th grade interest level and “4.7” grade reading level. I think it places grade levels a bit higher though, than the potential reading ability of a phonics-taught child. 🙂

      I would say the reading level could probably be read by a third grader, but the theme is more mature–about 5th or 6th grade maturity level.

  5. Celeste says:

    Thank you for writing this review. I found it extremely helpful as I try to curate a reading list for my son that will actually edify him as he gets his reading hours in. 🙂
    I’m wondering what books you might recommend?

  6. Celeste says:

    Thank you for writing this review. I found it extremely helpful as I try to curate a reading list for my son that will actually edify him as he gets his reading hours in. 🙂
    I’m wondering what books you might recommend?

    • Amy says:

      Hi, Celeste! I had someone else ask me that recently, so I was going to write a post with a bunch of links. I get ideas from different blogs and FB groups I’m in, as well as Christian lit-loving homeschooling curricula. I will try to write that post soon. For now, though, I think this blog has a lot of nice lists for children’s literature. Ultimately, you’ll have to look at reviews online (like you did with mine!) or read the book yourself. Even though a site might recommend several great books, there might be a disappointment somewhere in there. I like many of Cleary’s books, for example, but you have to be careful with some of hers. It’s not a chore to me, though, to read children’s lit! I love it. Well-written children’s lit is often better than adult novels. 🙂 http://www.wellreadkid.com/

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