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.

Lifesaving Lessons

by Linda Greenlaw
First sentence: “Confrontation was imminent.”
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Content: There’s some swearing, including a number of f-bombs. Plus some discussion of sexual abuse of an adult and a minor.

I read a few of Linda Greenlaw’s books way back when and although I didn’t keep up with what she was doing, when I found that she was coming to the store for the paperback version of her latest memoir, I snagged at the chance to both see her and read the book.

This one is a memoir of how she became a mother, of sorts. It’s the story of a girl who came to the island from an abusive family, with an uncle who was seen as a savior. That is, until she escaped one night, and the truth came out: her uncle was sexually and emotionally abusing her. It’s not a pleasant story to read; Greenlaw pulls no punches when talking about the abuse. She’s not graphic either, but rather giving us the full emotional heartache that her daughter — and the island — went through because of this. And how she ended up the legal guardian — and eventually feeling like a mother figure — of the girl.

It’s a hopeful book in the end, though. It’s not an easy road, with a lot of ups and downs, but Greenlaw takes us along for the ride in her frank, yet engaging way. I was drawn into her island way of life again, and worked through her problems with her. I wanted things to work out the best for Greenlaw and her ward, and it was that desire that kept me plugging through what usually would be considered Other People’s Problems.

I’m not sure it’s a book for everyone. But I did find the journey interesting.