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  • A Theory of Writing for Young Children:Arguing for a Moffett-Vygotsky Reading of Beverly Cleary's Dear Mr. Henshaw
  • Bruce Chadwick (bio)

In a recent article in the New York Times, Daniel Goleman wrote about the importance of children writing letters to the relatives of the astronauts who died in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. The children, he explained, could not readily explain or accept the sudden, violent loss of life, nor, he implied, could they understand the idea of loss. "The very act of writing the letters was a way for many children to heal those emotional wounds, experts say" (6). One particular psychiatrist stated, "Writing a letter lets a child express and organize his feelings in a way he would be unable to face. . . . It's a way for a child to repair his inner hurt" (6).

Although Goleman was not specifically exploring nor advocating a particular theory of writing, he clearly demonstrated that the children's letter writing became more or less a cathartic experience in learning how to process catastrophe and trauma. Beverly Cleary's Dear Mr. Henshaw more explicitly advocates writing as a way of coping with loss. Cleary relates the story of a pre-adolescent boy, taking him from the second to the sixth grade, through the boy's writing. In fact, the reader gets to know Leigh Botts through Leigh's development as a writer who is using writing as a way of learning how to cope with his parents' divorce. Written for children, Cleary's story shows the way Leigh uses writing to cope with loss, to explore his own feelings and reactions to events as they occur. The message is that writing is a valuable tool that is intimately connected with psychological and emotional growth.

In addition, Leigh's writing allows him to grow linguistically. For while he learns to cope with loss, he also learns that his ability to write is a skill that he has gained and can keep, and that leads to knowledge. Writing helps Leigh to define himself as a person; concurrently, growing more mature as a person has helped him during his writing; the two processes of growth—as a writer and as a person—blend into one. Initially, he allows himself to write by accepting other people's structures. Later, as he continues to develop as a writer and a person, he internalizes those structures, which to the reader seem to disappear [End Page 141] as he takes more and more initiative in making structure accommodate his growth. In short, Leigh learns that growth and structure are related and mutually reinforcible. One needs both. Second, he learns that writing is closely akin to living and that the two processes—which become closely associated as one—never end, never become a product to be completed; they are always a process to be continued. In very specific ways, Dear Mr. Henshaw illustrates the theories of James Moffett and Lev Semenovich Vygotsky; each theorist stresses the importance of language development in the maturing lives of young children. Beverly Cleary manages to invigorate the theories of both Moffett and Vygotsky by creating a young protagonist who links his intellectual development as a writer with his social, psychological, and emotional development. The impact of her story not only emphasizes the brilliance and relevance of each theory in relation to the education of young children, but also serves to clarify the importance of writing in the lives of young children, and to show how an adult can help a young child learn to write and to develop a positive attitude toward writing.

Early in the story, Leigh's writing is structured by others, as his mother, his teachers, and Mr. Henshaw all urge him to write. Mr. Henshaw offers Leigh the most important kind of encouragement, becoming not only a correspondent, but also a surrogate father to Leigh who, at a young age, must learn to grow up without a father, and without the compensation of brothers and sisters. Throughout the story, Mr. Henshaw encourages Leigh to write. But most important, he initially offers Leigh a structure—ten questions—that does not threaten Leigh...


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pp. 141-163
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