Dear Author

Dear Mr. Henshaw – written by Beverly Cleary, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky
HarperCollins, 1983

Mallory Pike, Number One Fan (Baby-Sitters Club #80) – written by Ann. M. Martin
Apple, 1994

While the late Beverly Cleary (1916-2021) is probably best known for her Ramona series, and for several early classics, she won the Newbery for a later work, Dear Mr. Henshaw. If you have never read it, or read it so long ago that it is a distant memory, you should return to this truthful exploration of children’s resilience, responding to adult incompetence when they have no oter choice.  The novel chronicles the painful experiences of a boy named Leigh Botts, whose estranged father is a long-distance truck driver and whose mother is struggling to support him by helping a friend in her catering business.  It is full of lyrical language and painful insights, as Leigh unwillingly corresponds with a well-known author as part of a compulsory school project.  Soon, the Mr. Henshaw of the title becomes a mentor to Leigh.  We only meet him through Leigh’s end of the letters, including subtly humorous references to the author’s novels (Ways to Amuse a Dog, Moose on Toast) which must reflect Cleary’s opinion of children’s publishing. 

Leigh’s father is a tragic example of parental selfishness. He has the best of intentions, but he continually disappoints his son.  He had inflicted the same repeated pattern on his ex-wife, but she eventually learned her lesson and, throughout the book, she is a source of strength to Leigh, although she suffers from loneliness and regrets. She is honest with Leigh, but, unlike his father, she understands the limits of what a child is capable of emotionally accepting.  Friendless, except for his author correspondent and a kind custodian at this new school, Leigh is depressed.  Eventually, his narrative in letters turns into an example of his literary gift.  Leigh’s talent at expressing his thoughts and feelings is not only a form of therapy, but evidence that he is perhaps as gifted as his role model, Mr. Henshaw.  By the time Leigh earns only an “honorable mention” in a school writing contest, he has developed the confidence to admit that “I have heard that real authors sometimes have their books turned down. I figure you win some, you lose some.”  When he does earn the opportunity, due to the plagiarism of another student, to have lunch with a “real author,” what reader doesn’t respond to her sincere and honest praise his moving “A Day on Dad’s Rig,” obviously a more authentic piece than those of the contest’s major winners. (a future Newbery Honor, or perhaps Newbery overlooked author?)

Ann M. Martin is a fine writer, even though Mallory Pike, Number One Fan is not as sophisticated as Cleary’s novel.  Still, there are obvious similarities.  Mallory’s family is intact; her problems are those of a child in a large family caught between her personal needs and seemingly unreasonable demands to help out at home.  She wants to be a writer, and, somewhat improbably, her favorite author turns out to live right in her own town.  Henrietta Hayes is the author of the Alice Anderson series, starring a plucky girl whose incredible adventures are only helped, never hindered, by the wonderful supporting cast in her life.  When Mallory learns that Ms. Hayes’s novels do not reflect her personal experience, which has actually been characterized by tragedy, she feels betrayed.  How could this be? Authors are supposed to draw on what they know, right? (A subplot involves the anger Mallory provokes from her own family, when she writes and produces a play for elementary school students, portraying her mother and siblings as irrational nuisances. Apparently, they are not aware of the late Nora Ephron’s adage, “everything is copy.”)

Like Leigh Botts, Mallory learns a lesson about writing.  Literal facts compose only a small segment of a novel, play, or poem.  The grief-stricken Henrietta Hayes patiently explains to Mallory that her cheerful novels do tell the truth, just not with a direct correlation to everything the author has experienced, including the death of her only daughter. There are clear parallels between the two books, so much so that I half expected Ann M. Martin to have acknowledged them in her short afterword.  Martin’s novel seems to be, on some level, an homage to Cleary’s. Both children contact their favorite authors through a school project.  Both aspire to be writers, and both benefit from the generosity of a “real author” who clarifies the difference between factual and imaginative truths.  Both form a bond with adults outside their own families, filling in the inevitable gap between parents and children.  Still, to quote Leigh Botts, reading these books, especially Dear Mr. Henshaw, “I felt sad and a whole lot better at the same time.”

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