While re-reading the stories from Klickitat Street I also read — for the first time — Dear Mr. Henshaw, Beverly Cleary’s Newbery-Award winning book. I was never sure why that book, of her forty, was the one to win the big prize and suspected it was more randomly selected for someone who was long overdue. I think there must have been a little bit of that, but I see how Dear Mr. Henshaw is the most Newberyish of her books. Light humor tends not to be taken seriously, and this one has a lonelier, sadder boy than we find on Klickitat Street, a hero that feels transposed from a Betsy Byars novel. Mr. Henshaw doesn’t have much presence in the book; it’s just a setup for an epistolary novel with a few winks from an author who knows the kinds of letters authors get from kids. It is her only book (I think) in the first person, so it has quite a different voice for her, and is also a tad more serious. The raw and honest way this boy misses his dad is one of the best treatments I’ve seen of divorce in a children’s book (the other that comes to mind is Laurel Snyder’s Bigger than a Breadbox.) Divorce has become so commonplace that it is now treated matter-of-factly, even lightly, but Dear Mr. Henshaw shows the confusion and hurt a child feels, especially when one parent doesn’t really want to be a major part of the kid’s life.
I think of my own first book and how glibly I treat the mother’s absence in the book. Now, I think the relationship with the dad is one of the best things I’ve done as a writer, so I’m not selling my own book short, but I do not address the serious hole a missing parent leaves in a kid’s life until late in the book, and then very casually.
Anyway, Dear Mr. Henshaw is quite good, and when you think of how long a shadow Ms. Cleary cast over the era of children’s literature, a Newbery was definitely deserved.
Coincidentally another book about a child’s friendship with an author fell into my lap at the same time, Beetle Boy by Margaret Willey. Charlie is also from a “broken home,” as they used to call it, but his is more broken than others — his father is on the make, both for women and easy money, and includes Charlie in one of his schemes — self-publishing storybooks about a little boy beetle with Charlie as the purported author (the stories themselves stolen from the mother, a secret Charlie keeps to himself, and his father has a heavy hand in the writing). He promotes Charlie as the “world’s youngest author,” coaches him on upbeat answers to questions, and lines him up for school visits and author events. At these events Charlie strikes up a friendship with an award-winning author they call Mrs. M — despite her own coldness toward him and his father, and his father’s downright hostility towards her. Charlie doesn’t have any interest in Mrs. M’s books, but comes increasingly to rely on her.
As a children’s book author it’s kind of amazing to see an author write about this world of school visits and author events, especially with a dose of cynicism about the whole enterprise. Given the regularity of viral stories about children doing amazing things, the story also has a kind of currency, to consider how such children may be exploited by parents, putting on a show they’d rather not be a part of. It essentially folds a middle grade story into a YA story, which I have not seen before, and the father is one of the most complete (if horrible) parental characters I’ve seen in a YA novel. I think the book turns for me on a scene where Charlie realizes that Mrs. M, too, is lonely and rather broken, that she has to find courage and stamina to go out in public. There’s also a lovely scene where she rescues him in the middle of one of those events, which I won’t describe, but it shows the kind of small-scale heroism and self-sacrifice that make up real lives but usually doesn’t figure into books. It is definitely a unique book. I don’t think you’ll find anything else quite like it.