"DEAR MR. HENSHAW . . . " It all begins when Leigh Botts is in second grade and writes a letter to an author. "My teacher read your book about the dog to our class. It was funny. We licked it." In third, fourth, and fifth grades the letters are perfunctory as well as predictable ("If you answer I get to put your letter on the bulletin board . . ." "Our teacher is making us write to authors for Book Week . . ."). In sixth grade there is another teacher and another assisgnment. It is here that what has been a smattering of letters turns into a correspondence in earnest.
The boy sends off a list of ten questions to the author (How many books have you written? What is your favorite animal?) and an admonition--"I need your answer by next Friday. This is urgent.!"
The author, in his turn, sends back answers (not, it may be noted, by next Friday) including one which says that his "favorite animal was a purple monster who ate children who sent authors long lists of questions for reports instead of learning to use the library." Then, in a gesture which proves he is obviously not without resources of his own, Mr. Henshaw includes a list of 10 questions--for Leigh to answer.
At this point Leigh turns peevish, somewhat mouthy ("About those questions you sent me. I'm not going to answer them, and you can't make me. You're not my teacher"), and finally apologetic. But answer them he does, largely because the TV is broken, his mother says he has to, and, we suspect, there are things on his mind that need sharing.
It is in the answers to these questions and in the letters and diaries that follow that we learn about Leigh and about his family.
Since his parents' recent divorce he and his mother (clearly a sensible type) have lived in Pacific Grove, on California's Central Coast, where Leigh is still considered a new boy in school and his only friend is Mr. Fridley the custodian. His father, meanwhile, is a long distance trucker, happy-go-lucky and not much given to settling down. In fact, Leigh spends a lot of time waiting for him to call, to come for a visit, to notice him in some way. From his description of a life that is at times both dreary and lonely, it is easy to see why Leigh (who calls himself "the mediumest boy in the class") puts so much importance on his letters to Mr. Henshaw. And it is through this correspondence that Leigh learns to confront the facts of his life and to handle his anger at his parents' divorce.
By the time his father does visit, Leigh realizes that although he still misses him it is not the kind of missing he once felt. It is as if life were filling in the chinks around him: there is a new friend, he wins an honorable mention in the writing contest, and goes to lunch with a Famous Author (not Mr. Henshaw). In one of the most touching scenes in the book Leigh discovers that his father is not as tall as he remembers him to be.
Epistolary novels, by their very nature, are apt to limit a writer, but Beverly Cleary, pitfalls not withstanding, has peopled her story with a group of fully realized characters. Even Mr. Henshaw comes alive as a likable yet slightly irreverent person who claims that the reason he writes books is that he has "read every book in the library and because writing beats mowing the lawn or shoveling snow."
The letters themselves are so real they make your teeth ache--a fact that should come as no surprise given the mail Cleary reads and answers every year.
And if Leigh isn't Henry Huggins or Beezus or Ramona or Ellen Tebbits--well, here I feel like one of those teachers who ask a child why he isn't as bright/clever/winsome as his older sister/brother/cousin. By this time we all know that, like a child, a character is who he is. So let me just say, "Welcome, Leigh Botts."