The Year of Billy Miller

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in brief… a summary

The Year of Billy Miller, a Newbery Honor Book, is Kevin Henkes’s latest novel. Published in 2013, it’s a 229 page book about Billy Miller’s second grade year. Henkes, both author and illustrator, has a penchant for crafting heartwarming stories about common topics or events in the lives of children.

The Year of Billy Miller is no different. At the start of the book, Billy is on a road-trip with his family (Mama, Papa, and his younger sister, Sal), just two weeks before the start of 2nd grade. They stopped in Blue Earth, Minnesota to see the statue of the Jolly Green Giant. Billy had a mishap here at the Jolly Green Giant that initiates the journey he takes over the course of the year (and of the book). When a gust of wind blew his new baseball hat from his head, Billy reached over a guardrail to grab it. In doing so, he fell overboard and down onto the pavement below. While he was diagnosed by the doctors as a “lucky young man” in good health, the lump on his head began a trickle of worry and uncertainty that coursed through him in his early days of second grade.

Over the course of Billy’s second grade year, he overcomes his worry, with the kind words of his teacher, Mrs. Silver, and he slowly develops a greater confidence in himself and understanding of his capacity as a friend, student, son and brother. This simple story, chronicling a child’s school year, is really the story of growth, change, and enlightenment. It is the story of how one boy grows to see this year as his year, “the year of Billy Miller”.

As a parent, there are so many reasons to love this book. To begin with, it’s funny. my seven year old son and I laughed out loud for about 5 minutes after reading the third chapter in which Billy misunderstands his “know-it-all” classmate’s nickname, “Emster”, thinking she is calling herself “Hamster”.

Mostly, however, I loved that in reading this book with my son, we were able to talk about real things that real 7 year-olds do, think, and wonder: relationships with younger siblings, feelings of insecurity with friends and at school, strong desire for independence, worries about family members, and urges to be helpful and “grown up”. Billy Miller’s year spans it all, and Henkes does so in a way that feels honest and akin to an authentic 7-year-old experience.

This book is a page turner. My son nagged me to read on, and when I wouldn’t or couldn’t, I’d find him cuddled up somewhere reading the next chapters(s) on his own. I think this book would be a wonderful book to read at the conclusion of a school year or as kids start wrapping up the summer and get ready for a new school year. It offers wonderful opportunities for laughs and conversations (both about Billy and about ourselves).

As a teacher, I admire the powerful model Henkes offers to young readers and writers. Billy’s year is not one riddled with intense drama, melancholy, or humor. Billy’s year is one that details typical 2nd grade events, anxieties, and relationships. So often, our students get hung up on trying to find the “grabbiest” topics. In The Year of Billy Miller, Henkes shows us that beautiful, captivating, funny stories can come from everyday experiences.

Henkes wrote this book with early elementary school-aged children in mind! While the book is long(ish), the chapters are short, and there is ample spacing between lines of text. Also, Henkes includes at least one small, black and white illustration (spot illustrations) in each chapter. These illustrations seem to depict aspects of the chapter that Henkes wants to stand out as significant or important.

This book is also a wonderful opportunity to explore story structure. Henkes organizes his book into long sections named after the key people in Billy’s 2nd grade year: his mother, father, sister, and teacher. Children can be guided toward exploring how these sections fit together to tell one story.

This book also offers great possibilities for a beginning of the year character study – character development, relationships, and character growth are all palpable in this text.

Finally, I think there are rich possibilities for exploring Henkes as an author and how this book fits into his repertoire as an author. Does thinking more about some of his other books, his craft, style, choice of subject and theme allow us to see anything new in Billy Miller (and vice-versa)? If you want to see Henkes in action, have a look at his website where you can see videos of him at work in his home studio, talking about his work and some of the choices he has made in other recent books.

Happy reading!


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