Dear Mr. Henshaw

by Beverly Cleary
First sentence: “Dear Mr. Henshaw,  My teacher read your book about the dog to our class.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content:  It’s simple without being simplistic, and deals with some tougher themes like bullying and divorce. It’s in the Newbery Medal section of the bookstore.

Even though I was the perfect age when this came out (I was 11 in 1983), somehow I missed it. Maybe I didn’t pick it up because by the time I was 11 I was reading Agatha Christie and trying to read War in Peace, and this would have seemed too simplistic for me. (Also, maybe the boy on the cover turned me off? I don’t know.) But, having read it now (for the first time!), I’m sorry I missed out on it.

It’s the story of a boy, Leigh Botts, who writes to his favorite author, and over the course of the book, figures out a bit about himself. His parents are divorced; his dad’s a trucker and his mom works at a catering company. He doesn’t see much of his dad at all, and because he’s in a new school, he’s finding it difficult to make friends. And so he turns to Mr. Henshaw, his favorite author, writing him letters. Eventually, those letters become a journal, and eventually that journal helps Leigh figure out things. At least a little bit.

This is the sort of book I needed when I was 11. We had just moved and I was starting a brand-new school in sixth grade, one where everyone had grown up together and I was most definitely the outsider, so I could completely empathize with Leigh. No, my parents weren’t divorced, but I understood his loneliness and his desire to be accepted and loved. I loved that there was a teacher who was good to Leigh, but didn’t play the “inspiring teacher” role. Leigh did figure things out by himself, with just a bit of guidance by the author and his teacher and his mom.  It was delightfully different from the other Cleary books I read this summer, more weighty and less, well, simplistic. It ended hopefully but not happily, and it gave me things to think about. And I think it definitely deserved the Newbery Medal it won.

Excellent.

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Booked

bookedby Kwame Alexander
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy pilfered off the ARC shelves at work.
Release date: April 5, 2016
Content: There’s a wee bit of romance and some difficult situations with bullying and divorce. Give it to readers ages 10 and up. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

The thing that I admire most about The Crossover was the style of it all. The way the poetry flowed on the page, the way that Alexander captured the rhythm of his characters in the ebb and flow of the poetry.

And lest we think lightning only strikes once, Alexander gives us Booked, repeating much of what I loved about his first book.

Instead of basketball, this time Alexander immerses us in the world of competitive soccer. Nick and his best friend Coby are extremely good, playing not only in competitive leagues but also for fun on the weekend plus the FIFA video game. It’s their whole life. Except, for Nick, it’s not that simple. His parents are going through a rough patch, and they separate so his mother can go help train a horse for the Kentucky Derby. His dad is a linguist and insists that Nick read this dictionary that he wrote, something that Nick resents. And, he’s bullied by these twins at school. There are bright spots: his mother makes him take this etiquette class, but there’s this girl he kind of likes (and who kind of likes him back). And the librarian at school is WAY cool. So, maybe Nick can find a balance in his life after all.

Not only is the story complex and compelling, I again, adored the poetry. Alexander has a way of making something as “stuffy” as poetry accessible and cool, which is wonderful.  I loved how the voice and the form of the poems changed depending on the characters (Nick was ostensibly our narrator, but there were appearances from other characters as well). I loved the footnotes with definitions of some of the bigger words (including snarky asides).  It’s fun and engaging, and yet Alexander tackles tough subjects like bullying and divorce with grace and ease. It’s not just a smart way to get reluctant readers interested in books or unsure kids interested in poetry. It’s a fantastic book.