A Newbery Honor Book for 2013!!
The Year of Billy Miller (2013) by Kevin Henkes
Suggested age range: 7 and up (Greenwillow, 240 pages)
Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Contemporary Realism, Early Readers
The Book: Billy Miller is entering 2nd grade, and he has a bit of trepidation about it. He has a new teacher, Ms. Silver, who wears chopsticks in her hair, and Billy is a little worried about what to expect. However, his father’s words to him on his first day, “This is the year of Billy Miller” echo through his heart, and this phrase indeed rings true throughout Henkes’ humorous and heartwarming narrative about a 2nd grader who navigates relationships with his teacher, sister, father, and mother. The result is a laugh aloud story detailing Billy’s antics and challenges—a perfect read-aloud with a fabulous 2nd grade male perspective.
Spirituality in The Year of Billy Miller: Working through insecurities and fears in order to connect on a deeper level with other people is something many of us can relate to. Here is a spiritual element that is implied within the book, for Billy navigates a relationship with a new teacher, and though at first he thinks he is misunderstood, he presses through with vulnerability to express himself to Ms. Silver. The conclusion of the story is significant in the way that Billy’s mother empowers him while he recites his poem in front of the school. I won’t give away what happens, but I think readers will agree that the way Henkes represents Billy’s relationship with his mother at the end of the story makes for a perfect wrapping up to the story.
Exploring this Book with Readers: This book might offer a unique opportunity for young readers to express their feelings about close relationships in their lives. Readers could “draw” a family member of friend who is close to them, and then write a short poem to go along with their drawing (similar to Billy Miller’s poem about his mother in the book). Readers might also be invited to brainstorm ideas for a fifth section of the book—a series of chapters about another person in Billy’s life.
The Final Word: Some reviewers have suggested the story for fans of the Ramona series, and I have to say I agree. As a child, I loved the Ramona series, perhaps for the series’ realism and the way the books represent significant experiences for that age range. A book focused on a 2nd grader’s year at school and family relationships is certainly needed for a young readership, and I think Henkes has delivered a fantastic story, worthy of its Newbury Honor Book status for 2013.