I first came across the brilliant work of children’s author Kevin Henkes when I was a graduate student in the New York City Teaching Fellows program. It was the first week of a crash course in elementary school teaching when one of our instructors pulled out Henkes’ picture book, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse
, a story about a precocious young mouseling who can’t wait to show off her new prized possession. The story is both laugh-out-loud funny and honest. The instructor read it in such an animated and exuberant way that I felt giddy just imagining sharing it with my students.
It’s been 13 years since then, but Kevin Henkes’ work continues to make me giddy. He’s written 35 picture books in his 33 years as a published author. Many of them feature Lilly, and a host of other quirky mouselings, and appeal to the younger elementary set. But he’s also penned and illustrated sweet, engaging tales for preschoolers, plus 10 novels for older readers.
Henkes’ newest literary offering is The Year of Billy Miller
, a short novel featuring a thoughtful and anxious second-grade boy. I learned in a teacher workshop that kids tend to like books featuring characters a bit older than themselves, and I’ve found this to be mostly true. I’m always on the lookout for intelligent, age-appropriate novels to read to my first-grade daughter, Mira, so I was excited to give Billy Miller a try.
The book is divided into four parts — Teacher, Father, Sister and Mother — that focus on Billy’s relationship with each of these important people in his life.
When the story begins, Billy is wondering whether he is smart enough for second grade. His father reassures him that the coming school year will be “the Year of Billy Miller.” Soon, though, the anxiety creeps up again. Billy is worried that calling his dad "Papa" sounds babyish, and that his teacher thinks he is making fun of the chopsticks she wears in her hair.
Kids feel anxious about a lot of things, but it’s rarely portrayed in books. For my own worry-prone daughter, I’d like to think that Billy’s feelings help to validate her own, showing her that worry is a normal part of being a kid.
Adult characters are often flat in children’s book, but not in The Year of Billy Miller
. Papa is a work-at-home artist who creates sculptures with treasures he finds in the town dump. But he’s been having difficulty making something special lately and acting crabby as a result. Parents will identify with Papa’s struggle: trying to be a good parent when you’re in a bad mood.
Billy’s ambivalent feelings toward his 3-year-old sister, Sal, are equally believable.
“Underneath Sal’s dense, dark curls clipped with a panda barrette and her lacy pastel nightgown, Billy saw the enemy,” Henkes writes. “Why couldn’t he have a brother instead?”
But when Billy can’t sleep one night, he goes to Sal for comfort.
The book culminates with a class celebration in which Billy reads aloud a touching poem he wrote about his beloved Mama. He tries to memorize it as a surprise for her, but when performance time comes, he forgets the words. Luckily, his mama has taken a copy of the poem and hands it to him. Henkes writes beautifully about their exchange:
“Here,” she whispered. “You can do it.”
And he could.
And he did.
He read his poem into the microphone from beginning to end in a voice that was made so big and loud and wide it seemed to bounce beyond the walls of school, reaching to the world outside, to the moon.”
The Year of Billy Williams
looks beyond the angst. It's an uplifting tale about being brave and the power of familial love.