Dear Mr. Henshaw, a Newbery medal-winning book by Beverly Cleary, is a great way to get students to think about some of the therapeutic benefits of writing. Of course, you don’t have to mention how helpful writing can be when you need to sort out feelings but you can let students figure this out on their own as they read the book.
Leigh Botts writes to his favorite author, Mr. Henshaw, as part of a school assignment and when the author writes back and asks Lee questions, his mother says he has to respond. Through his correspondence with Mr. Henshaw Lee learns about accepting life’s difficulties and — with the encouragement of Mr. Henshaw — starts to keep a journal.
In addition to coping with his parents’ divorce and missing his father, Leigh also deals with moving, adjusting to a new school, and having his lunch continually stolen — certainly timeless topics.
While some children may not think of writing letters to an author, they may keep a journal or know someone who keeps one. There are a lot of projects that can be added to the study of this book, including writing letters or journal entries as one of the characters. Students could also write to offer advice to the characters. Introducing students to the basic format of a personal letter (or e-mail) will provide valuable experience.
Mr. Henshaw certainly proves to be more interesting (and interested) that Leigh probably imagined. Reading this book could also foster discussion about the kinds of people your students admire (authors, celebrities, athletes) and what makes a person worthy of admiration. Ask if there are any local, “hometown heroes” that your students admire in addition to people who are nationally or internationally famous.
One of the many takeaways from the book for adults is that adults encourage Leigh to write and while he is hesitant at first, it grows on him. Students who would not write on their own may learn to enjoy it more if a teacher or parent lays the groundwork for them to get comfortable first.