About 8 years ago, my mom bought me a book from a thrift shop, not even knowing what it was about. This was the time when we lived in the USA, and my mom who didn’t know English too well would randomly pick books she liked the covers of. And this is how she unknowingly bought a copy of Beverly Cleary’s “Strider.”
And I didn’t read that book for a very long time.
I could never be sure of what sort of books my mom would pick. Sometimes they ended up becoming my Favorite Book, or they were just plain bad. It didn’t really help that Strider’s cover made it seem like a book about sports, which didn’t really catch my interest, or the fact that it didn’t even have a short summary on the back.
I did read Strider eventually though. And I still pick it up from time to time. I’m very close friends with Leigh Botts, you see. When someone says something degrading about a truck driver, I think of Leigh and his dad and get really sad. When I feel bitter, I think of the phrase “I’m just a rotten kid with a bad attitude.” When I go out for a run, I think of Strider.
Strider, however is only a sequel to “Dear Mr. Henshaw.” And today, I finally found a copy of it. Reader, if you’re living in a country where English is the main language and many libraries and bookstores stock this popular childrens’ book, then you probably won’t understand why finding it was so huge for me. And in my friend’s dorm’s study room, no less!
“Dear Mr. Henshaw” is a heavy book and a light book at the same time. It’s a kids book, but at one point I found myself crying. Leigh is the new kid in school and his parents have recently divorced. He misses his dad, who is a truck driver constantly on the road, his dog, having friends invite him over after school, and he is sick of having his lunch stolen every day. We learn his story through the pretend-but-occasionally-real letters he writes to Mr. Henshaw, his favorite author.
I don’t know why, but it always seemed to me that well written kids books are full of wisdom. Maybe it’s because instead of filling the pages with artsy paragraphs and complicated sentences, the author tries to keep the child’s interest while making her sympathize with the characters. And when I say the author tries to “keep the child’s interest” I don’t mean that they pick simple themes, or only write action scenes. For example, Beverly Cleary doesn’t shy away from the topic of poverty. Leigh’s mother works during the day and attends a night school. They used to live in a mobile home park. His dad is always late with his child support payments. However, the story is also filled with light, like when you imagine what Boyd Henshaw thinks about all these letters and whether he’s amused (and I feel like he’s very amused), or when you read about Leigh’s friendship with the school janitor, or his newfound friend Barry (with too-many sisters). And here’s a touch of wisdom from this kid’s book:
“I never did find out who the thief was, and now that I stop to think about it, I am glad. If he had set off the alarm when my lunchbox was in the classroom, he would have been in trouble, big trouble. Maybe he was just somebody whose mother packed bad lunches- jelly sandwiches on that white bread that tastes like Kleenex. Or maybe he had to pack his own lunches and there was never anything good in the house to put in them. I have seen people look into their lunches, take out the cookies and throw the rest into the garbage. Mr. Fridley always looks worried when they do this.
I’m not saying robbing lunchboxes is right. I am saying I’m glad I don’t know who the thief was, because I have to go to school with him.”
Another thought on poverty. I went to stay at my friend’s house for the 5 day holiday we recently had. It was no ordinary house though. It was practically a mansion, complete with a fireplace, a gatekeeper, hunting dogs, a small pond, a greenhouse, you name it. And for a moment I felt really poor – I’m not though. I’m just not as rich as the people around me. But that is not the point. The point is, Leigh’s life is not nearly as comfortable as mine, but he doesn’t mind it, he doesn’t really think too much about it. I’m glad Beverly Cleary chose someone I can relate to – except for the 8 year age difference. That doesn’t matter though.
For the time being, I will go back to the books I’m reading for my humanities class, Macbeth at the moment. I don’t mind them, in fact humanities is my favorite lesson. It’s just that I really miss the simplicity, prose and wisdom of kids’ books now and then. Here’s to hoping that I’ll never grow out of them.