Book: The Year of Billy Miller
Author: Kevin Henkes
Age Range: 7 - 10
I had intended to pick up a copy of The Year of Billy Miller for a while when it received a Newbery Honor. This moved it higher up on my list, and I'm so glad that I read it.
We've been Kevin Henkes fans in my house for quite some time. We have a boxed set of little picture books about Lilly and her friends that we received when my daughter was born. Lilly's Chocolate Heart was one of the first books that she knew by heart, even though she could barely pronounce the words. These days, she frequently selects other picture books by Henkes from the library. We both adore Henkes' early reader series about Penny. I've only reviewed Penny and Her Doll, but we have them all.
So, when I heard that Henkes had written a book for slightly older readers, I had high hopes. The Year of Billy Miller does not disappoint. The book is, as you would expect, about a year in the life of a boy named Biller. Specifically, it's about Billy's second grade school year. Billy's confidence at the start of the year is a bit shaky. A fall has left him with a lump on his head, and he worries about whether or not he'll be smart enough (he does forget things). Being seated next to a bossy, braggy girl does not help matters. Billy's dad, who he calls Papa, tries to reassure him by declaring that this will be "the Year of Billy Miller." And in the end, of course, it is.
The Year of Billy Miller is a perfect book for kids who are ready to move beyond early readers and entry level chapter books, but aren't quite ready for true middle grade. Although it's longer than some books written for this age range, at 240 pages, and has fewer illustrations, the structure of the book helps to keep it accessible. As, of course, does Henkes' pitch-perfect understanding of the lives of second graders.
The book is divided into four sections, each featuring an important person in Billy's life (his teacher, his father, his little sister, and his mother). Each section consists of five short chapters. The print is wide-spaced, and there are small sketches mingled directly within the text, a few per chapter. The sentences are short, and the vocabulary is new-reader-friendly, but with some stretch words, too ("embedded", "plopped").
The situations described in The Year of Billy Miller are ordinary and relatable. A misunderstanding with a teacher, a sister who damages an art project, a bout of late night fears. The situations are age-appropriate, but Henkes doesn't talk down to kids, either. Billy's father is grouchy when his art isn't going well. Billy gets blazingly angry at his sister sometimes. He figures out on his own the best way to deal with the annoying girl at school - he doesn't go to anyone for help.
Here are a few of my favorite quotes:
"Grace Cotter slipped into her chair. Billy had known Grace since kindergarten. She was so shy she seemed almost invisible. Like vacuums, her wide eyes were sucking in everything." (Page 21)
"There's a girl named Hamster in my class," he said.
"Boy or girl?" asked Papa.
"Maybe her parents are celebrities," said Papa. "They often give their kids unusual names."
"Huh?" said Billy. (Page 28)
"And Sal had asked Papa if she could please, please, please use glitter, which was kept in a secret hiding place out of her reach." (Page 64)
OK, those last two passages pleased me as an adult, I must admit. But all of it is kid-friendly. I also enjoyed seeing the occasional echo of Henkes' other books (the use of "Mama" and "Papa" for one thing). I think that readers who have grown up with Henkes' books will enjoy this, too.
In summary, I highly recommend The Year of Billy Miller. It would make a great classroom read-aloud for first or second graders, or a perfect bridge book for kids almost but not quite ready for more complex middle grade novels. This is a must-purchase for libraries (of course), but I'm glad that we have a copy to keep. I look forward to reading it with my daughter when she is just a little bit older. And to seeing her read it herself a bit after that. I hope that Henkes writes more books for this age range, and above, so that my daughter can grow up with his books.
Publisher: Greenwillow Books (@HarperChildrens)
Publication Date: September 17, 2013
Source of Book: Bought it
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