Somewhere in a box of old books I found a copy of Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary. It is different from her other books - the Ramona stories, the gentle teen romances like The Luckiest Girl and Fifteen. I have probably read it hundreds of times, but it was not until I read it again recently that a new chord was struck, a new thought emerging from the words that I had missed all those other times before. On the surface it is about a boy working through the loneliness of being a new student in a new town, of working through the sadness of his parents' divorce, of waiting for phone calls that never come, of having to live in a ramshackle shed-turned-cottage because it is all they can afford on one parent's small salary and the other's unpredictable support checks.
Leigh Botts is in the second grade when he writes his first letter to Boyd Henshaw, three sentences, mispelling "liked" and "friend" as "licked" and "freind." By the time he is in third grade, he has learned how to spell "friend" but not "touch" (tutch). A few more (properly spelled) letters later, Leigh is "the sixth grade in a new school in a different town," working on a school assignment where each student has to do an author report in order to improve their writing skills. Leigh sends a list of ten questions to Mr. Henshaw, who responds with ten questions of his own, which he is nagged into answering by his mother.
Between the worrying about his father on the road hauling goods cross-country and why people who love each other still get divorced and just exactly who has been stealing the good stuff out of his lunch bag and how to stop them Leigh is learning how to become a writer, just by writing. Writing about the things that bother him and the things that make him unexpectedly happy, like eating fried chicken in the car with his mother, watching the rain through the car windshield. Or being allowed to raise the flag in front of the schoolyard because he is early to school, or having dinner at his friend's comfortable home, overrun with little girls who sit at the table giggling. Or finally figuring out how to rig up an alarm for his lunchbox which does not manage to catch the thief who has been taking his deviled eggs and bacon-wrapped chestnut-chicken livers and little cheesecakes but instead goes off in the middle of the cafeteria as Lee tries to extricate his lunch.
Somehow in telling Mr. Henshaw about his life and continuing to write in his diary (at the suggestion of Mr. Henshaw), Leigh has, almost without knowing it, become a writer. While trying to come up with a story about a truck-driver made of wax, he becomes stuck, and instead writes about a day he spent with his father, riding along when his dad had to haul a load of grapes to a winery. It wins him an honorable mention in the school's Young Writers Yearbook, which leads to lunch with another children's author who not only remembers which story he had written, but tells him that she like it "because it was written by a boy who wrote honestly about something he knew and had strong feelings about...you wrote like you...This is one mark of a good writer."
Twenty years before I learned the same thing from Charles Bukowski, Beverly Cleary (in the guise of Mr. Henshaw) taught me that the way to get to be an author was to write. (In the book that last word is underlined twice). It took me that twenty years to begin.
Cleary, Beverly. Dear Mr. Henshaw. Dell Publishing Co., 1983. pp 1-2, 119-20, 31.