The World of 2nd Grade: Review–The Year of Billy Miller (2013) by Kevin Henkes

A Newbery Honor Book for 2013!!

billy miller

The Year of Billy Miller (2013) by Kevin Henkes

Suggested age range: 7 and up (Greenwillow, 240 pages)

Rating: 4/5 stars

Source: Library

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.


Review: Words with Wings (2013) by Nikki Grimes

Words with Wings (2013) by Nikki Grimes

Suggested age range: 10 and up

(WordSong, 96 pages)

Rating: 5/5 stars

Source: Library

grimes words

“When class lets out, I hurry home, hungry for dinner and hoping to find more words with wings to dream and write about tomorrow.”

The Book: Gabby has been a daydreamer ever since she can remember. Her parents are divorcing, which means she and her mother are moving and Gabby will attend a new school. She doesn’t know anyone, and describes herself as a “Shy Girl Who Lives Inside her Head.” She misses her father, a daydreamer like Gabby. She appreciates her mother, but she often tells her to pay attention in school and stop daydreaming so much. This is a beautiful novel in verse about a young girl who sees “words with wings” and is navigating through the experience of a broken family and a new school. Grimes has created poetic verses that depict a bright and sensitive girl whose daydreams may just turn out to be more significant than she thinks.

Spirituality in Words with Wings: Difficult times can help a person to see how his/her inner spirituality is significant. Gabby’s daydreaming is definitely one aspect of her spirituality, for it fuels her wonder and awe at the world. Sometimes a moment of awe at the way the rain is falling is what nurtures our spirituality can draw us into a profound experience. Gabby has a creative mind, and she is drawn to another creative mind in her classroom—a boy who draws. Together they develop an important friendship that supports Gabby as she is adjusting to a new school. Because both Gabby and her friend are tapped into their creativity, they are able to connect meaningfully and express that creativity with one another. In other words, both feel “safe” with the other.

Exploring this Book with Readers: A slim novel, A slim novel, this would work well as a read aloud in an upper elementary or middle school classroom. At the same time, it would be perfect for individual or even pair reading. The chapters in a different font represent the daydreams that Gabby has throughout the book. Each “poem chapter” is titled and Grimes includes snapshots of Gabby’s earlier life when her parents were still together throughout the story. Young readers could relate to this book on multiple levels, including the experience of going through a divorce, moving to a new school, making friends, and most importantly, daydreaming! Many creative minds have trouble paying attention in class, and this book is lovely because it shows how a teacher reached out to Gabby, and valued her “daydreaming” gift. Grimes based the teacher in the book on one of her own teachers—I loved reading about this in the Acknowledgments section.

The Final Word: I started reading novels in verse more after I was chair of the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award one month, and I am so happy I did! Novels in verse for children and young adults can be so profound, because they can tell a good story while at the same time illuminating the beauty of language and the way we can “play” with words. Words with Wings is a hopeful and heartwarming story that doesn’t sugarcoat divorce, but does illuminate how change is not always negative, and that difficult circumstances can strengthen character and reveal talents.

Picturebook Review: Anthony Browne’s Me and You

Me and You (2010) by Anthony Browne,

Suggested age range: 7 and up

(Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 32 pages)

Rating: 5/5 stars

Source: Library


“The girl leaped out of bed and ran downstairs and out the door.

I wonder what happened to her.”

The Book: Anthony Browne has done it again! He has written and illustrated a thought-provoking picturebook that leaves multiple gaps for readers, and manages to open up profound and spiritual discussion about how people treat and perceive one another. He accomplishes this all with the well-known fairy tale, Goldilocks and the Three Bears. But that’s not the title of this story; this one is called Me and You. The book follows the story of the original fairy tale, but includes the perspective of both the girl, who becomes lost after chasing a balloon and finds her way into the bear’s unlocked house, as well as the bears. One page includes the text and more muted illustrations of the girl’s view and the opposite page features the colorful and pastel world of the bears.

Spirituality in Me & You: One attribute of spirituality in texts for young readers is a capacity to increase social sensitivity in readers. For example, does a reader walk away from a book with a desire to understand and reach out to others more? The concluding text in Me and You portrays the child of the bear household, gazing out the window at the girl, wondering where she is going. We, the readers, get to see the barbed wire and the graffiti on the wall the girl walks by. We know that she was separated from her mother early in the story, and that she may go hungry some days. Having this perspective of her character allow the reader to more fully understand the why behind her going into the bears’ sunny yellow house. Encouraging such open-mindedness is a characteristic of Browne’s books.

Exploring this Book with Readers: This picturebook might make its way into the classroom and serve as a whole class read aloud, a book for an individual reader, or even a book for several readers. Two readers might switch off “telling” the story aloud—one reader can take the girl’s story and one reader can tell the bears’ story. Students could add several pages to the end of the story, and communicate through the written word as well as the visual what happens after that last page. Finally, this book would pair nicely with Browne’s Voices in the Park as many themes are similar. This book should be shared with children who might be familiar with the Goldilocks tale, and basically, every reader should be exposed to Browne’s picturebooks!

The Final Word: I have never been disappointed with any of British illustrator, Anthony Browne’s books, and this one was no exception. Browne has taken what can be a sensitive issue, and has framed it within the pages of a story about a lonely girl who is trespassing on another family’s property. Like his Voices in the Park, this story highlights a child (baby bear) who wonders about another child (the girl), even though the parents might be disapproving. Both books position the child characters as (potentially) the more sensitive ones, who are not as quick to judge others based on their appearance.

Can you think of other re-visioned fairy tale picturebooks (recently published or older) that encourage social sensitivity in readers?

Review: The Book Whisperer

The Book Whisperer  (2009) by Donalyn Miller

Suggested Readers: Educators, Parents, Every Adult

(John Wiley and Sons, 228 pages)

Rating: 5/5 stars

Source: Library but buying Personal Copy

book whisperer

“When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.” -Maya Angelou

The Book: Though it was published in 2009, somehow I did not stumble upon The Book Whisperer until this past fall. The subtitle of the book “Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child” gives you a clue as to its focus, and this goal is certainly something that many educators and parents are thinking about in the 21st century. Written by 6th grade reading teacher, Donalyn Miller, the text is practical, inspiring, and relevant for any language arts teacher, librarian, or parent. Miller asks her 6th grade students to read 40 books a year. That’s right: 40!! And many of them read more than this!

Essentially, as Miller puts it in the introduction, this is a book about motivating students to read. It fills a gap; Miller wanted a book that linked her passion for reading with the way she was teaching reading in the classroom. She relied firmly on her own background as a lifelong reader in order to help her students develop into lifelong readers. At first, it might seem simple. But Miller’s points and suggestions are right on target, and urge many teachers to shift their thinking about what works in the classroom.

For example, Chapter 6, “Cutting the Teacher Strings,” includes the voices of some of Miller’s students about activities related to reading response. Miller encourages teachers to reconsider using a whole-class novel, and to teach readers, instead of books. She suggests a focus away from comprehension tests as the sole purpose for reading a book, and instead of book reports, she presents book commercials and book reviews. I have to say I heartily agree with Miller about the danger in allowing students to think the main purpose of their reading a book is to fill out a worksheet about it. Yes, a student must comprehend a book in order to understand its literary elements and talk about its themes, and so why not make this the primary activity for their reading?

Here’s a passage from the beginning of the chapter, a quote from one of Miller’s students, Christina: “I think my worst nightmare was last year, when we all had to read the same book, and do worksheets, and make journals after every chapter.” I think that would be my worst nightmare too! Since when do I, as an adult, ever have to fill out a worksheet on a book I’ve read? I don’t. What I do enjoy is discussing that book with other people and writing a review of that book. With my own students, I found that they loved making book trailers and even talk shows in which they discussed their responses to a book.

Why It’s Good for Teachers & Parents: The Book Whisperer contains loads of practical tips for generating a love for reading in the classroom. There are surveys in the appendix and many examples of strategies Miller uses to develop lifelong readers. Topics in the book include Miller’s own views as a lifelong reader, practical ideas for the classroom, passages from students, and scenes from Miller’s experiences in the classroom developing lifelong readers. Chapter titles include “Everybody is a Reader,” “There’s a Time and a Place,” “Reading Freedom,” and “Cutting the Teacher Strings.”

Needless to say, this book is refreshing, and definitely shifted my thinking about developing readers in the classroom even more. I am inspired and excited about Miller’s ideas and perspective, and am looking forward to her brand new book that has just been released, called Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Guide to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits (2013).

The Final Word: As a teacher and researcher of children’s literature, I loved this book! Many of Miller’s ideas about nurturing a love of reading in her students were similar to mine, but the way she carries these ideas out practically in her classroom introduced new strategies to me. Though my own 6th graders would have 25-30 minutes of reading every day in class, Miller’s points about giving students time to read reinforced to me that this is a non-negotiable when it comes to planning the day. This is now one of my top books related to nurturing readers, and I think it should be required reading for every language arts and English teacher!

You can check out The Book Whisperer’s website here.

Review: The Third Gift by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

The Third Gift (2011) by Linda Sue Park, Illustrations by Bagram Ibatouilline

Suggested age range: 7 and up

(Clarion Books, 32 pages)

Rating: 4/5 stars

Source: Library

3rd gift

The Book: A boy accompanies his father as he collects resin from tree bark, the “tears” that become the valuable essential oil of myrrh. This is the father’s craft, and the story highlights the bond between father and son as well as the transferring of a craft from one generation to another. You may recognize the style of Ibatouilline’s illustrations—he produced the pictures for Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.

The text includes information related to how the essential oil of myrrh was used in the past, and based on the allusion to the event of Jesus’ birth at the end of the story, the reader can guess the time period and place of the story. The realistic illustrations are acrylic-gouache, and include beautiful details of the Middle Eastern landscape and clothing.

The father’s product is pursued by a spice merchant in the marketplace one day, and the boy and father discover three richly dressed men who have traveled far and are seeking a valuable gift for a baby. The men decide to purchase the large tear the boy recently acquired, and the story concludes with the boy gazing after the men as they ride off into the desert towards the baby.

Spirituality in The Third Gift: The significant spiritual and religious event of the birth of Jesus Chris is alluded to in the conclusion of the story. However, the Father/Son relationship is another area of spirituality in the text; this father/son bond is unique in that the Father is imparting knowledge about a skill to his son. There is a significant connection forged between them. At the same time, he is also giving him more responsibility; the father allows his son to share his “tear” with the three visitors who are seeking a “third gift” for this baby they will visit.

A spirituality of wonder and awe is subtly hinted at in the closing illustration and text. The boy does not know all the details of these three visitors or the nature of their future visit to the baby, but he senses (communicated by the both the picture and text) that this is significant. Perhaps the boy will never know to whom his gift was given. What the text does communicate is that even the very young can play an important role in globally significant events.

Exploring this Book with Readers: This is perfect for a read aloud, and introducing this book during the Christmas season would be brilliant, but this is also a book that would work anytime of the year. Discussion with young reader could focus on several areas: Crafts and abilities we have that can bring joy to others, Middle Eastern culture, the gaps and mystery in the story that are left open for the reader to fill.

The content related to the essential oils and spices is another brilliant road into the story. Essential oils as natural healthcare is discussed in the story—historically, myrrh was used for “headaches…stomachaches…to soothe rashes.” In our own time, essential oils can still be used for these ailments, and I was especially interested in this picturebook due to my recent introduction to essential oils. I have found they have amazing properties and can answer many health concern questions, including sleeplessness, anxiety, headaches, and allergies. How excited I was to discover this beautiful picturebook that highlights an essential oil, myrrh, and frames it within the background of an event over 2,000 years ago.

The Final Word: I would definitely recommended sharing this with both elementary classes and even middle school classes. The age of the students could determine the depth of analysis and discussion, but certainly, this book has something to offer every reader. Its allusion to the Biblical event of the birth of Christ would make it especially appropriate for religious classrooms. However, this book would appeal, I believe, to readers of all backgrounds.