Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Review: The Year of Billy Miller

The Year of Billy Miller
By Kevin Henkes
Expected publication September 17, 2013 by Greenwillow Books

Billy Miller is not looking forward to starting second grade. He has a big lump on his head and is worried what other kids will think of him. But, as Billy's year goes by, he learns what will be different - sometimes annoying classmates, accidentally upsetting a teacher - and what will be the same - often annoying little sister, helpful and loving parents.

I've loved Kevin Henkes since I myself was a child and have often gifted his books to the children in my life. I was absolutely thrilled when he branched out to middle-grade novels, even more thrilled when he started writing early readers (the Penny books are some of the best easy readers out there), and now, absolutely bonkers that he is venturing into early chapter books. I loved pretty much everything about this book. I loved the structure - Billy's year is broken up into four sections: Teacher, Father, Sister, Mother. Each section focuses on how Billy struggles to better understand and relate with that person in his life. Being an early chapter book, the story is very episodic, but I find that comforting for that age group and reading level.

While I love fantasy and out of this world stuff, I really appreciate good realistic stories that kids can relate to. Additionally, we get a lot of requests from parents for these kinds of stories for their kids who are just learning to read. A lot of what Billy Miller goes through in this book will be easy for its young readers to relate to. I think my favorite episode was Billy's overwhelming desire to stay up all night - and what a struggle that is when you are in second grade. I loved reading about what Billy is doing in school, and especially what he struggles with. I think this will really resonate with readers.

If there is one thing that Henkes as a writer (I won't even go into his artistic talents, though I'll note that this title features small illustrations of his throughout) excels at (as if there is only one thing), it's his characters. This has been abundantly clear from his beginning in picture books. What reader does not remember Chrysanthemum's turmoil over her name, or spunky (and slightly bossy) Lily, who wants to always be the star of the show. That strength has certainly carried over to his forays into longer works and Billy Miller is no exception. I loved Billy and his family. Oh my goodness, Sal - I want to adopt her. Actually, I want to be a member of this family - they are all so loving and beautifully realized.

Some folks have quibbled about who exactly is the audience for this book. It's over 200 pages long - much lengthier than your typical early chapter book. But it stars a second-grader, an age at which most kids begin to read chapter books. Personally, I don't see any reason why a dedicated new chapter book reader couldn't read this book. However, I think, ideally, this is a family story. So much of it is about family and I think it would be best enjoyed read together as a family. I definitely recommend this read.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

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