Dear Mr. Henshaw

by Beverly Cleary
First sentence: “Dear Mr. Henshaw,  My teacher read your book about the dog to our class.”
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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.

Dear Committee Members

by Julie Schumacher
First sentence: “Dear committee members, Over the past twenty-odd years I’ve recommended god only knows how many talented candidates for the Bentham January residency — that enviable literary oasis in the woods south of Skowhegan: the solitude, the pristine cabins, the artistic camaraderie, and those exquisite hand-delivered satchels of apples and cheese…”
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Content: It’s very much an adult book in sensibility; not to mention about a half-dozen f-bombs dropped in frustration throughout the novel. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

This one has been on my radar for a while; I even was given an ARC by the publishing rep when they came to talk about the lineup a long while back. I just didn’t get around to it until my book group foist it upon me, saying the same thing everyone else did: It’s hilarious. You’ll love it.

It’s the story of Jay Fitger, a tenured English professor at a small liberal-arts college in the Midwest, told entirely through his letters of recommendation (and other letters) for various people. At the outset, it’s a brilliant work of fiction: you get a thorough sense of Jay and the kind of professor (and person!) he is through the letters. Also, you get a sense of not just the passing of time, but also the kind of responses he’s getting, without seeing those. These are entirely one-sided letters, and yet I felt like I got a complete picture of everyone in Jay’s life, from his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend (both on campus) to the woman he had an affair with and modeled a despicable character in one of his (bad) novels after. I knew these people (at least on the surface) from the way Jay wrote to them (and about them) in his letters.

But that wasn’t enough for me to love this one. No, I didn’t find it funny because it hit too close to home; my husband is a professor in a small department in a struggling liberal arts college in the Midwest, and the things Jay was dealing with were just too familiar to be funny. In fact, I think this book is funnier the further away from academia you are. (Or at least the English department; the person who chose the book is a biochemistry professor.) But for those of us in the humanities, or at struggling small colleges, it’s just not funny. It’s Truth. And, at least for me right now, Truth wasn’t what I wanted to read.

So Long a Letter

by Mariama Ba
First sentence: “Dear Aissatou, I have received your letter.”
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Content: It’s pretty serious and deals with issues of infidelity and polygamy and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. But there’s no swearing, sex, or violence. It’d be in the adult section of the bookstore.

Recently widowed, Ramatoulaye sits down to write a long letter to her best friend about all the events that led up to Ramatoulaye’s husband’s death. It was a happy story:  for 25 years, they were happily married. Ramatoulaye spent her life in devotion to her husband, bearing 12 children. Then one of his daughter’s friends caught his eye, and he woos her, and takes her as a second wife (as is permitted in Islam). That simple act wrecks Ramatoulaye, but she manages to survive as a single mother.

It’s a slim novel, and an interesting one. I didn’t particularly like the format –why, if she’s writing to her best friend, would Ramatoulaye need to recount her friends’ history (which was much like her own; her husband took a second wife. The difference is that Aissatou left her husband)? It didn’t make sense to me, logically, some of the things Ramatoulaye included in her letter. That said, if when I was able to get past that, I found the story was simultaneously enlightening and disheartening.

Enlightening, because that’s an area of the world I know very little about. And through Ramatoulaye, Ba brings to life the ordinary lives of Senegalese women. And disheartening because they have so few rights, as we have come to think of them. I read this book in the middle of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, and this is a prime example why I need to read more books like this. In my privileged home in my privileged country, it’s easy for me not to think about Senegalese women and their lives. But books like these help me. It helps that Ba is a good writer (aside from the format, of course), and was able to draw me into Rmatoulaye’s life.

And that’s what makes this book worthwhile.