Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw (1983)
(And my Holman-Harmon Handbook to Literature)

I hadn’t given this book a thought for my series on Letters for this autumn, but I happened upon a copy of it at a booksale a couple of weeks ago, and I did love my Ramona re-reads (and fresh reads) this summer (beginning with Ramona the Pest and finishing the series).

But what sealed the deal was the sweet tone of the book’s beginning. It opens with a letter from a second-grader, who is writing to his favourite author.

“Dear Mr. Henshaw, My teacher read your book about the dog to our class. It was funny. We licked it. Your freind, Leigh Botts (boy)”

Yes, they “licked” it. And “freind”. It’s cute. But what struck me more was the subtle change between that first page, that first letter, and the next.

It’s a letter from Leigh again, but this time he is in the third grade, and he has learned a way to remember how to spell ‘friend’ correctly, and he can read that book about the dog all by himself now.

You probably already know what I love about these letters most: Leigh’s love of reading. In the third letter, he writes: “I am a great enjoyer of your books.” And his sign-offs are revealing too: “Your best reader” and Your favorite reader”.

When readers first meet him, though, Leigh doesn’t feel as though there is anything that sets him apart from the other kids in his class. He says: “I guess you could call me the mediumest boy in the class.”

But as the pages turn, it’s clear that’s changing. At the very least, Leigh’s parents’ divorce is forcing him to stand apart. His schedule changes and he arrives at school too early and has nowhere to hang around, which is an outward change. But even more significant are the inward changes.

Readers learn about these partly through his introductory letters to Mr. Henshaw (who sends a list of questions to his young reader), but gradually Leigh’s letters transform into a diary.

That’s something else that’s changing, something else that sets Leigh apart. He wants to be a writer, too, like Mr. Henshaw. He writes in a notebook now. But “[w]hen I get to be a real author, I will need a typewriter.”

The Leigh at the end of the letters and diary is a different boy in many ways. But he is still a loyal reader. He still picks up that first book of Mr. Henshaw’s that he read, so he can “read it for the thousandth time. I read harder books now, but I still feel good when I read that book.”

It’s a charming read. But it also raised a question for me. As I’ve been looking for more epistolary novels, I’ve come across several titles that sounded interesting but turned out to be diaries, not letters.

Then, when Dear Mr. Henshaw wanders across the line from letters-to-diary, I thought maybe I’d misunderstood the term ‘epistolary’.

So I looked it up in dear ol’ Holman-Harmon. Epistolary novel? “A novel in which the narrative is carried forward by letters written by one or more of the characters.” It goes on. Nonetheless, no diaries allowed. So now I know.

And if you’re also curious which they recommend?

Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748),
Nicholas Breton’s A Post with a Packet of Mad Letters (1602),
Aphra Behn’s Love Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister (1682),
Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771),
Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778),
J.P. Marquand’s Pulitzer-winning The Late George Apley (1937), and
John O’Hara’s Pal Joey (1940).

Have you read any of these? I’ve love it if you’d write me a short letter, either way.