Jennifer Green, owner of Green Bean Books in Portland, Ore., shares her thoughts on The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes, which she’ll be eagerly handselling when Greenwillow releases it in September.
In my former life as a second grade teacher, I lamented the scarcity of spunky, seven-year-old male characters who could compete with legends like Ramona, and my more recent favorite heroine, Clementine. So when I read the galley of Kevin Henkes’s The Year of Billy Miller, I knew that the year had arrived – not just for Billy Miller, but for all seven-year-old boys lucky enough to get their hands on this book.
Billy’s life is filled with mud-balls, sister squabbles, diorama projects, and teacher troubles – the usual makings of a second-grade existence. He starts out by trying to convince his teacher, Ms. Silver, that he indeed has a heart of gold, and is smart enough for second grade (despite the worrisome head-lump injury he procured at Mount Rushmore over the summer). We are pained by Billy’s pure and simple desire to be liked by his teacher. His honest misunderstandings, persistent anxieties, and ability to empathize endear him to us as a sweetly flawed character with universal appeal.
In scene after scene, I was amazed with Henkes’s ability to capture the mind of a second-grade boy so succinctly. In a scene where Billy is supposed to be writing a poem about his mom in his journal, the author writes, “Billy had trouble getting started. He opened his poetry journal to the first page and wrote: My Mom. He couldn’t think of anything else to write, so he drew a series of volcanoes in progressive stages of exploding.” Spot on second-grade boy!
Descriptions of Billy’s annoying yet adorable three-year-old sister, Sal, add to the authenticity and humor of Billy’s world. Sal totes around not just one comfort object, but a whole sack of comforting plush whales. Hilarious references to them abound throughout the book, as do other random backdrop images that make up Billy’s quirky yet believable family life.
Definitely make room on your bookshelves alongside Ramona and Clementine for Billy Miller. I know this book is to become a favorite read-aloud for primary teachers, and I will take immense pleasure in recommending it during our store’s upcoming educator night. I have to admit, though, I’m a little jealous, because I wish I could be the one introducing this fresh, lovable character to an expectant group of sparkling-eyed second graders this fall.