Kevin Henkes is one of those special authors who manages to get the tone kids live in – gentle, sweet, provocative – just right. He does it with picture books (Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse); he does it with novels (Olive’s Ocean); and he really gets is right with The Year of Billy Miller, a Newbery Honor book from 2014.
“But, Papa, will I be smart enough for second grade?”
Billy is a sweet, curious, assertive kid and in this book he’ll be navigating second grade. Henkes has structured the book into four sections, and in each section Billy confronts and resolves some question or project or challenge – with his teacher, his father, his sister, and eventually his mother.
With his teacher, Billy gets in trouble because he is so earnest in wanting to impress Mrs. Silver, he brings her totems and jewelry best left at home. Mrs. Silver finds her own gentle way to figure things out, and Billy learns one maturing lesson at a time.
“You have to be patient with glue.”
Billy’s father makes art out of found materials. He has a workroom chock full of stuff others would consider junk or trash, but Billy embraces it, so it’s no surprise that Billy is gung-ho for the make-a-volcano-at-home project. That is until pesky Sal spills glitter all over it. It could be the source of sitcom tragedy, until Billy finds a way to make the best of things.
“Rocks are made up of minerals… They can make a cave look like it’s decorated with jewels… This actually makes it better, more authentic.”
Like most big brothers, Billy can be fed up with his little sister, but it turns out he can also be a mensch when the situation calls for it. Billy and Sal endeavor to stay up all night, and that means Billy has to get into the spirit and play creatively with Sal’s collection of plush whales, the Drop Sisters. He does! “This is – Coughdrop. He’s the Drop Sisters’ cousin.”
Billy’s biggest challenge is poetry. He has to write a special poem…for his Mom. He loves his Mom, but he doesn’t know how to tackle this project. He feels the pressure. Mrs. Silver eventually shows him how to get just what he needs – from his Mom. He interviews her and learns: “Of all the things I like, quiet might be my favorite.” Billy’s concise poetic triumph may surprise you.
When the year is over, the sweet, curious, assertive Billy Miller has learned a lot about himself, about his family, about navigating school. “He realized that as soon as one problem is solved, something else is right there, waiting to take up your time.” It’s a budding sign of maturity, one of those hard lessons we all learn as we go through school.
But don’t worry, he’s still only going to 3rd grade. When your school community reads The Year of Billy Miller all together, your students will be glad to know that a sequel awaits, Billy Miller Makes a Wish, all about bats, crayon tattoos, beginnings and endings, and even a little romance.