If I’ve read Dear Mr. Henshaw once – and I established in this month’s installment of With Apologies to Hornby that I recently did – I’ve read it at least 50 times.
From fourth through most of eighth grade, that book was my go-to. I’d read it, close it, flip to the beginning and start over. I think I even read it a few times in high school before it disappeared from my bookshelf in a fit of casting off childish things.
I found a first-print hardcover of Dear Mr. Henshaw at a used-book sale last autumn, and I grabbed it, shelved it, and forgot about it. A few weeks back another writer was asking around online about writing an epistolary novel, which Cleary’s book is – a story told through letters. I immediately thought of it and made the recommendation as a great example of the form. Then it occurred to me that I should re-read it.
I expected to be awash in nostalgia. What I discovered was something else entirely.
Over the course of the book, Leigh Botts writes letters to his favorite author, the titular Mr. Henshaw. Whatever correspondence comes from the author isn’t seen. As a kid, my take on the book was pretty surface-level, but I loved the idea of a kid writing to his favorite author, hearing back, and continuing the correspondence. I even wrote a letter to Cleary at one point, telling her how much I loved Dear Mr. Henshaw. Never worked up the courage to send it, though.
As I re-read the book last month, I recalled the powerful impression the story made on me and my interest in writing. As much as I was interested in Leigh’s story, I was also intrigued as a kid by Mr. Henshaw, his playful tone in how he responded to Leigh, and his willingness to respond to a reader in need. I wanted to be that guy to somebody, someday. I also saw the way Leigh’s disinterest in writing turned into a genuine passion, and I recognized that in myself.
Anyway, that’s what I recalled from the book. A kid writing to his favorite author, with compelling enough subject matter to keep me going back again and again. And again. That’s not what Dear Mr. Henshaw is, though. Instead, it’s the story of a kid processing the grief of his parents’ divorce through letter writing and journaling. And it’s amazing.
I’d completely forgotten that a decent chunk of the book is Leigh writing in a journal with no expectation of a response from Mr. Henshaw. He just used “Dear Mr. Henshaw” as a jumping-off point to make the act of writing easier for himself. Then he starts writing to the actual author again, then back to journaling, and so on.
What was really mind-blowing was re-reading the book, not just with fresh eyes, but the eyes of a guy who’s experienced divorce and seen the impact that has had on his own kids. When I was Leigh’s age, I wondered what having divorced parents was like. The age I am now, I grieved for and with Leigh as I read.
In many ways, going back to Dear Mr. Henshaw was a cathartic experience, and it not only caused me to examine past experiences from a fresh perspective, but it also inspired me to keep on writing.