The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes

ImageJust before school starts, Billy takes a fall during a family vacation, and now he has a lump on his head. He worries that he’s injured his brain, but when he asks his father if he thinks he’s smart enough for second grade, Papa says that not only is he smart enough, but he thinks that this will be the Year of Billy Miller.

Billy’s mom teaches high school English, so she leaves for work every morning, and his father is an artist, so he stays home and takes care of Billy and his three-year-old sister, Sal, who won’t go anywhere without her stuffed whales, the Drop Sisters: Raindrop, Dewdrop, Snowdrop, Gumdrop, and Lemondrop. Sometimes the Drop Sisters make them late for school because it takes them so long to go to the bathroom. In second grade, Billy and his best friend Ned learn to make habitat dioramas that turn out to be enhanced by Sal’s glitter; his teacher, Ms. Silver, wears chopsticks in her hair every day—a different color for each outfit; and as the year goes on, Billy learns to deal with his anger toward Emma Sparks, the most irritating little girl in Room 2.

Although Kevin Henkes may be best known for his beloved picture books like Chrysanthemum and Lily and the Purple Plastic Purse, he is also the Newbery-winning author of Olive’s Ocean, a middle-grade novel. The Year of Billy Miller is deceptively simple, with stories of everyday family life revealing Papa’s worries about not making enough money, or Billy realizing that, although his little sister can be incredibly silly and annoying, he really loves her very much. While completing the last project of the year, writing a poem about someone you love, Billy finds out that his mother likes all sorts of things almost as much as she loves being his mother.

If Clementine is the little girl star of chapter books, Billy Miller is the little boy counterpart. He’s not perfect, but he’s growing through all of the challenges and experiences of second grade with his terrifically supportive family and even a great babysitter. In short, the mom in me thinks he’s a sweetie pie. Though not as complex as some other Newbery contenders this year, The Year of Billy Miller is certainly in the running. More about that in my Newbery summary. Medal or not, you do not want your young readers to miss this one. For fluent readers seven and up, this is beautifully done.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions are only my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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