Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

A second grade teacher was asking for book recommendations that she could read out loud with her first grade son. I can't wait to put this one in her hands. It enters an age range of books that is oh-so-hard to find in elementary libraries. Picture books. Check. Early readers. Check. Transitional readers. Ummm... half a check. And boy protagonists? A fourth a check. "The Stories Julian Tells" comes to mind, along with "The No. 1 Car Spotter," and the Roscoe Riley series, but honest-to-Pete there are not a ton of choices. I usually feel relieved when the child moves on to the next level in reading fluency because I know I'm running low on recommendations. This must be a difficult age range to write for as an adult, especially creating an authentic character. The author needs to capture the emotional development of a child who is just beginning to recognize his or her individuality and attempt to learn self-control while adapting to other adult ideas of behavior. Henkes not only encapsulates Billy's 7-8 year-old age range, but he shows Billy's three-year-old sister as dealing with parent separation anxiety, tantrums, and sibling issues. I highly recommend this well-written book.

Billy is worried about going to second grade especially when he overhears his mom express her concern over a fall he took that gave him a concussion. When school starts he has problems dealing with his classmate, Emma. As their confrontation escalates he makes an inappropriate gesture at the teacher and tries to fix it by being kind. He's learning what it means to behave toward others and how he fits in the classroom community as an individual. At home Billy realizes that his father isn't happy and knows it has to do with being an artist but doesn't really understand why until he makes a diorama for a class project. Unhappy with his project, he realizes that his dad feels the same way about his artwork. He doesn't express it this way but tells his dad what a great artist he is and asks him to make some dioramas because he liked them. One difficulty in creating a young protagonist is that they can't sound like an adult and Henkes does a terrific job showing Billy's growth that reflects his immature age.

Kids are trying to gain confidence at this age and the adults in the story nurture and help Billy in his growth of understanding himself as a person. As he thinks about growing up and being older he decides that he will no longer call his dad, "papa," and mom, "mama," because of peers teasing him and wanting to sound older. His sister annoys him much of the time and he likes to act superior to her, but when she tries to stay up all night with him, he decides she is not so bad. He even recognizes that she needs his pearl because she believes it is magic. He knows that it isn't magic and that he doesn't need it like she does, although when he has to go speak in front of a microphone he borrows it for confidence. He also likes to say "mama" and "papa" once in a while. This back-and-forth between acting older and younger makes for an authentic protagonist.

Two items stood out for me and please think of them as observations rather than criticisms. If I had a book club, I'd discuss my first question with them. Or I'd bring it up to get their experiences. They might look at me cross-eyed or agree. Who knows? I thought Billy's sister would have a tantrum when Billy asked for the pearl back and that their mom would have to interfere because of a fight but that doesn't happen. His sister just gives it back because she knows it is Billy's toy. Most three-year-olds I've dealt with have no clue how to share and express emotions physically. Billy's sister doesn't seem to represent the norm that I've dealt with, but I have not spent a lot of time around three-year-olds as of late. It doesn't take away from the story, I'm just curious if anyone else had similar thoughts. The other question I had concerned the poetry unit Billy was doing in grade 2 where the teacher was doing free verse, Limericks, and Haiku. My experience is that this unit is too advanced for that age in general. I know in first grade students only learn to read poetry, not write it. Second grade would just be learning to write it and the unit would be simpler. When Billy wrote his poem it was age appropriate and beautiful in its simplicity so in all fairness even if I'm right the unit is just a minor thing that makes no difference in the end.

The writing is beautiful and Henkes creates a mood and imaginative world that comes to life. He shows how young kids worry about things quite different than adults through the eyes of Billy. When we meet the dolls called, "The Drop Sisters," that Billy's sister has to have seats for at a restaurant, we are reminded of the imaginative play of toddlers that is so real to them. In the chapter where Billy invents a dragon called, "Coughdrop," that coughs when answering "The Drop Sisters" it is brilliant. Billy starts out the chapter annoyed with his sister who is having a tantrum and ends with a fun imaginative playdate late in the evening in his sister's bedroom.  Billy feels comforted by his sister's presence considering there is a monster under his bed. A gorgeous book.

5 Smileys

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