The Year of Billy Miller, by Keven Henkes. Greenwillow, 2013, 229 pages. Age/interest level: 6-8.
Kevin Henkes’ name on a book jacket automatically gets attention. No wonder: not only is he equally successful at writing and illustrating, he’s one of the very few children’s writer/illustrators to win both Newbery and Caldecott medals. And probably the only author/illustrator to win each one twice. His first Caldecott honor medal was in 1994 for Owen (first in a series of beginning-reader mouse books). He struck Caldecott gold in 2005 for the lovely Kitten’s First Full Moon. In 2004 his middle-grade novel Olive’s Ocean captured a Newbery Honor medal, and yesterday he scored another silver medal for The Year of Billy Miller.
Henkes is perhaps best known for his early reader series books, and Billy Miller is one step up from the “I Can Read” stage—basically a chapter book (the publishing designation given to heavily-illustrated novels for children who are just beginning to read independently). It’s encouraging to see some Newbery love shared with kids at this level; usually the award is dominated by novels for pre- or early teens.
Billy Miller is a perfectly normal kid who starts second grade with a fear that he’s lost some smarts. It was a vacation accident: while grabbing for his cap on a windy day, he fell over a guardrail and landed on his head. The fall knocked him out and raised a bump the size of a baseball. It’s going down now, but will he be able to handle the challenges of second grade? Loving parents, a pesky but adoring little sister, a nice teacher and a stalwart best friend will help him meet the challenges, but the achievements belong to Billy. He will take some missteps and harbor some misunderstandings and make flat-out mistakes, and at first it’s hard for him to know how to deal. What he wanted to do was run and run and run around the playground. Running always made him feel better. But you can’t do that when you’re sitting in a classroom.
The chapters are arranged in four sections, each with its own storyline in a vocabulary easy enough for second- or third-grade readers. The wording doesn’t sound stiff, as so many early readers do, but natural and engaging. No big crises develop (just school projects, getting along with girls, learning to like poetry), but the characters feel knobby and distinctive enough to be real and the situations unfold in a way that feels right. Henkes remembers what it’s like to be a little boy, bursting with unfocused energy and wavering intentions: He and Ned chased after Emma. But they didn’t really know what they’d do if they caught her, so they changed course. Around and around the foggy playground they ran until it was time for class. When I was this age range, I devoured these kinds of stories: people I liked in circumstances I could relate to. The Year of Billy Miller, while contemporary, has an old-timey feel disturbed just a little by Billy’s observation that his classmate Grace has two moms (whom we don’t get the pleasure of meeting). That small detail is pretty easy to overlook, and the rest is encouraging and reassuring for kids who are still little, in so many sweet and frustrating ways.