Helping Children Make Sense of Grownup Problems: Beverly Cleary

I can hardly read Dear Mr. Henshaw (1983, Newbery Medal 1984) by Beverly Cleary without crying.  Sometimes sobbing. Sometimes an ugly cry.  It is such a touching book, and when I read it to my daughter a few weeks ago, I kept choking up and having to stop and regain composure.  My daughter was confused.  She’s sensitive and empathetic, but she did not understand some of the deeper references to the loneliness a child feels at the divorce of his or her parents.

That is what Dear Mr. Henshaw is really about.  Divorce.  Leigh Botts is the young boy in the book, which is written as a series of letters from Leigh to famous author Mr. Henshaw.  As Leigh writes to Mr. Henshaw, we gain insight into his life and heartaches.  Leigh’s parents get divorced, his mother must work long hours, and he spends a lot of time at home alone.

dear mr. henshaw cover

I can relate to Leigh.  My parents were divorced when I was six, and I spent the next twenty years trying to make sense of it.  I think I have been in a good place for a while now, but as a child and young adult, I struggled with feelings of inadequacy, guilt, hurt, and anger because of what happened to my family.  So every time I read Cleary’s book, and I’ve read it many times because I consider it to be one of her best (yet most uncharacteristic), I get emotional.  That pain in my heart of being a child who wishes desperately for her parents to get back together or wonders if her parents really love her comes back with a vengeance.

Cleary wrote the book for children like me.  She wrote it in 1983, several years after my birth.  She wrote it before tragedy would strike my family, yet she wrote it for me.  As a school librarian and a children’s author, she saw many children struggling to make sense of grownup problems.  She could see that these children needed her, just as Leigh needed Mr. Henshaw.

I wonder if Cleary ever received any fan letters like the ones Leigh wrote to Mr. Henshaw in the book.  Is that what sparked her idea?  Or did she wish that struggling children would write to her so that she could try to heal their breaking hearts?  I would like to believe that this is true.  The picture in my head of Beverly Cleary is one of a goddess-like figure who loves children and cares about them.

She is hands down my favorite children’s author.  I read most of her work as a child, especially the Ramona books, but I revisited and read all of her books (every last one) in my early twenties.  And when my daughter became old enough to enjoy reading aloud with me, I read all of them again with her.  And then we listened to them all in the car together.  I would read them again tomorrow.  And in that sense, Cleary is a mentor to young (and old) people through her books.  She has reached many children through her delightful stories and her more serious ones, too.  (Did you know she has written teen romances as well?  They are so fun and sweet.  And so much better than the current teenage vampire book craze.)

I see this mentoring as important and far-reaching, but in Dear Mr. Henshaw, Cleary makes a case for mentoring at a local level and by unsung heroes.  Mr. Fridley, the school custodian, befriends Leigh in the book.  He notices Leigh’s downcast look and lack of friends.  He includes Leigh when he can and encourages him to take initiative (in building an alarm for his lunch box, a delightful part of the book) and congratulates him when he does.  Other teachers also encourage and love Leigh when he needs it most, and I see the book as not only an answer to the broken hearts of children, but as a call to teachers and school employees and administrators to look out for the one.  The child who is struggling, lonely, and melancholy may need an adult to notice him or her.  The act of noticing, mentoring, and taking that child under one’s wing may change that child’s entire life.

I know that the many mentors I have had made a huge difference to me in my younger years, and their lasting impact is visible in my everyday life now.  I can’t begin to name all of the wonderful adults who took the time to notice me and love me when I was that awkward hurting child.  But I remember them.  I am grateful to them.  And  I try to be like them when I can.  I don’t often find myself around young children (besides my own), but I have had the opportunity to mentor teenage girls in my community and church over the last several years.  I have tried so hard to help them and to support them.  I don’t know if I’ve made a huge difference.  I have gotten a few thank you notes and gifts.  But to me, that isn’t the point.  I have gotten far more from the experience.  I enjoyed every second of that mentoring and I will continue to do it because it helps me.  That sounds selfish, but it is that wonderful idea that losing yourself in the service of others is the best way to find yourself.

I’ll close with a quote.  Willa Cather said, “When people, serious people, believe in you, they give you some of their best, so take care of it.”  This is definitely how I feel about my mentors.  I’m trying to take care of their best and to pass it on.

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