Retro Review: Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I visit schools, during the Q&A time I am often asked: “Is there anything you wish you could change in your books?”

I must confess that when it comes to my forthcoming book, Postcards from Pismo, there is one thing I wish I could change. It’s not in the novel proper, mind you; thankfully, the story on the page is exactly the story I wanted to tell. The change I would make is in the Acknowledgments.

I remembered to thank my wife, my dog, my colleagues, and my fact-checking help, but I neglected something important—an influence without which my book would never have been possible. I’m referring, of course, to:

Dear Mr. Henshaw
by Beverly Cleary
illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky
HarperCollins, 1983
Winner, 1984 Newbery Medal

Consider this open letter to be my attempt at correcting the oversight.

Dear Ms. Cleary,

Before my wife gave me The Perks of Being a Wallflower, before a college professor lent me The Screwtape Letters, and even before my mother introduced my teenage self to Dracula—before all that, I read your book, Dear Mr. Henshaw. Back in fourth grade, it was my introduction to the epistolary style, and to say it broadened my definition of what a book could be is to put it too mildly. This book opened a whole new wing in my literary mind.

You write with such remarkable economy throughout the story. Leigh’s voice is pitch-perfect. Everything he shares tells us something of his character, often while also revealing exposition, illuminating the setting, and providing clear pictures of everyone else in his life.

Most significant to me, though, is the way you’ve structured the book. As Leigh moves from letters, to pretend-letters, to a diary, the story’s presentation becomes more than a device or narrative trick. It works as a way to track Leigh’s growth—both as a storyteller, and also in his ability to be honest with himself. In large part because of the way it is told, Dear Mr. Henshaw is one of the most authentic depictions I’ve ever read of a young writer’s struggle to find his voice. This is a book I’ve heartily recommended to many students—but for aspiring writers especially, it is essential reading.

I always tell young people that stories are hiding everywhere—and it’s a writer’s job to find them. Thank you, Ms. Cleary, for Dear Mr. Henshaw. It truly lit the way as I searched.

Ever a fan,
– Michael Scotto

Michael Scotto has written a series of educational picture books and two middle-grade novels. His latest, POSTCARDS FROM PISMO (Midlandia Press), hits shelves on May 15th. When he is not writing, he can be found visiting schools, hosting readalouds, and giving creativity seminars to parents and teachers. If you wish to have him speak with your group, request a visit at http://www.michaelascotto.com.