When Leigh Botts is in second grade, his teacher read "Ways To Amuse A Dog" aloud to the class. Leigh loved the book and wrote a note to the author, Boyd Henshaw, to tell him so. Although he didn't receive a reply, he wrote again the following year after reading the book for himself, and told Mr Henshaw about his dog, Bandit.
As a fourth grader his teacher decided to give the class a project for Book Week; they have to write to authors, so Leigh writes again as "Ways To Amuse A Dog" is still his favorite book. This time, the author responds and suggests that Leigh reads one of his other books, so he does, and enjoys it almost as much as the first one.
When Leigh reaches sixth grade there have been some changes in his life. He has moved to a new town and goes to a new school. His English assignment is to write to an author for tips and to get some autobiographical details from them. Leigh sends Boyd Henshaw a list of ten questions, with the tenth being tips on how he can write a book someday too. He doesn't get a letter back in time to write his report but improvises by reworking the author information on the book jacket. When the letter does arrive it is jokey and filled with silly, funny answers which amuse the class, and it also included a list of questions for Leigh to answer. Leigh is annoyed about that because he doesn't think it fair that there is additional work involved but his mother insists, because if the author, who is very busy, found the time to answer Leigh's questions then Leigh has to do the same in return. It is then we learn that Leigh's father doesn't live with the family anymore. When he left he took Bandit the dog with him, and the family's mobile home was sold. Now Leigh and his mom live in a one room apartment and his dad lives in a trailer. Leigh's dad is a truck driver and Leigh thinks this is why they got divorced, because the payments on his truck were too high and his mom thought they would be stuck in the mobile home forever. His mom works for a catering company which is rather great for Leigh as he always gets something nice from the caterer in his lunch. His mom also takes vocational classes to get a nursing qualification. Leigh misses his dad and he used to love riding in the truck with him. Now he is lonely and wishes he was the kind of kid who got asked over to someone's house after school. He spends more time with the school custodian than the other children as he sees him as somewhat of a father figure. Leigh is having problems with someone stealing the good things from the catering company out of his lunch bag. Lots of things bother Leigh; his being alone in the house too much, and his dad never telephoning when he says he will. He wishes that his dad and Bandit will come back and seems sad his life has changed, wishing for a close bond with his dad and the complete family they used to have.
Unable to do anything about his family problems, Leigh throws himself into trying to find out who is stealing his lunch. At the moment the only solution seems to be for him to eat it on the way to school but he begins to keep an eye out for anyone moving towards the area where lunches are stored. He documents this in his new diary that Mr Henshaw has suggested he keep. He decides to write a fictitious name on his lunch bag so that the thief won't recognize it as his lunch and therefore won't bother stealing from it.
Leigh hopes that his dad will come and visit for Christmas but days pass and his hopes are dashed, although he has another trucker deliver Leigh's Christmas gift - a quilted jacket that he has always wanted. Even his mom seems pleased.
After school starts again, Leigh's plan to fool the lunch thief with a fictitious name seems to be working as several days pass without a theft, but the thief seems to have worked out his strategy and by the end of the week Leigh's miniature cheesecake is missing. He looks angry enough at recess for the custodian to comment and when Leigh tells him why he is miserable Mr Fridley jokes that he needs a burglar alarm. He does try to tape the bag up so tightly with Scotch tape that the thief cannot open it but this unfortunately means that Leigh can't open it either.
Leigh is getting more and more miserable and lonely. He misses his dad but hates him for never calling so one day when he is alone in the house he dials his fathers number and is shocked to hear him answer, because it means he is home and could have called Leigh if he had wanted to. Then his dad tells him that Bandit jumped out of the car at a truck stop and is missing. Leigh is upset and even more upset moments later when he hears a boys voice asking his dad if he is going to get pizza with him and his mom. Leigh hangs up and cries, miserable because his dad is taking someone else's son for pizza when his own son is home alone in a tiny house with mildew in the bathroom. He hasn't intended to tell his mother what has happened but he can't quite keep it inside and does so. To make themselves feel better they go out for a bucket of fried chicken.
The next day Leigh goes for a walk after school and comes across a field of butterfly tree. Watching the butterflies makes him feel good and he decides to throw himself into making a burglar alarm for his lunch. He buys a black lunchbox at a thrift store then borrows some books from the library about electricity and wiring, learning enough to enable him to work out how to set an alarm. At the hardware store he buys a light switch, a battery and a doorbell. Back at home he fastens the battery and switch with wire and then fastens the second wire from the battery to the bell. When he opens the box the alarm goes off! On Monday he puts his lunchbox with all the others, anxiously waiting for the alarm to go off and identify the thief. The problem was, though, that to open the box to get out his lunch, Leigh has to set off the alarm. Everyone is impressed with the invention, even the teachers, and other children want Leigh to make alarms for them too. Another boy on his class, Barry, wants an alarm for his bedroom door so that his sisters can't keep coming in and bothering him and invites Leigh home after school.
Leigh turns his attention to writing something for the Young Writers Competition. The prize is lunch with a famous author and Leigh wants to win in case the author is Boyd Henshaw.After several failed attempts he dashes off a piece called A Day On Dads Rig about trucking down Highway 152 with his father.He is sad not to win first prize but his story does receive am honorable mention and when one of the prize winners is unable to attend the winners lunch with an author, Leigh's teacher says he can go instead. The author is Angela Badger who is very friendly but Leigh cannot think of a word to say to her. Finally she asks him what he wrote for the contest and he tells her he wrote about a trick ride. To Leigh's surprise she loved his story and thought it a terrific piece of writing for his age. She makes his day by calling him an author. Leigh writes to Mr Henshaw to tell him.
A couple of days later Leigh's father turns up outside the house with Bandit who was found by another trucker. His father wants the family back together but his mother won't agree to it as she says there are too many lonely nights wondering where he is. Leigh realizes his dad is lonely and says that he can keep Bandit with him in the truck. Although Leigh desperately wanted his mother to agree to a reconciliation Leigh feels better knowing that his dad actually misses them, and feels both very happy and incredibly sad at the same time.