May 01, 2016

Review: Dear Mr. Henshaw

Dear Mr. Henshaw Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the occasion of her 100th birthday, I made a shrine to Beverly Cleary, who has been a favorite author of mine since early childhood. In doing so, I learned that she had won the prestigious John Newbery Medal only once, not for one of the Ramona books, or Henry Huggins's, or Ralph Mouse's, but for a book I'd never heard of called Dear Mr. Henshaw. So I bought a Kindle edition and read it on my phone on the subway.

 Which may not have been the best idea, because Dear Mr. Henshaw is a beautiful, extremely emotional book. Of course, being a writer myself, stories about young writers being introduced to their craft hit me where I live, but that doesn't account for all of this epistolary novel's power. There's a sharp, sneaky honesty in every line, expressed in simple, direct language, that has a cumulative heartbreaking effect. Not just because of sadness, but because of a deep sense of understanding. So I kept sniffling on the subway, my sinuses heating as I struggled back tears.

 That keen sense of fully comprehending the pre-adolescent struggle to create a space for oneself, to open up realms of possibility that could open up into adulthood, to place one's parents in the spectrum of humanity and accept their failings and good points along with your own, all comes together in a crisp, accurate child's voice in his letters. It's lovely.

 However, I found the ending disappointing. There's no real wrap-up to the arc with the writer, Mr. Henshaw, who inspires and frustrates Leigh Botts, the protagonist. The story merely eases to a close. There are sequels, where more of the story is explored, no doubt, but I believe this book should have had more of a satisfying resolution standing on its own. Perhaps there should be a collected edition of the two Leigh Botts books (or I should have bought both immediately), because I was left feeling unfulfilled by this first book in the incomplete narrative.

 Still, it's emotionally brilliant and gorgeous until the story runs out of pages.

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