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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”)
- 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).
- 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.
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.
- 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.