Title: The Year of Billy Miller
Author: Kevin Henkes
Illustrator: Kevin Henkes
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Publication Date: September, 2013
Audience: Reading level, Grades 3-6.
Summary: Ms. Miller, Billy’s 2nd grade teacher, informs her class that this year, according to the Chinese Calendar, is the Year of the Rabbit. Billy’s father says, “It’s really the year of Billy Miller.” Despite his worries about a bump on his head, an aggressive and irritating table mate, a misunderstanding with his teacher, Sal, his little sister, who scatters glitter on his bat cave diorama, his failure to stay awake all night, and the struggle to write a poem about his mother, Billy comes to the end of the year with the confidence that his father was right. The greatest gift of this book is the reminder that an ordinary seven year old boy is never really ordinary. And you’ll remember the Drop Sisters, a winning stuffed animal group belonging to Sal, who deserves her own book.
Literary elements at work in the story: Kevin Henkes, an award winning author, weaves a quiet, humorous, satisfying story about Billy’s year in 2nd grade, dividing the book into four sections: Teacher, Father, Sister, Mother. He scatters small, black and white illustrations throughout the pages. Henkes deft hand is a welcome addition to school stories such as Andrew Clement’s Frindle. The problems so prevalent in childrens’ literature today-child abuse, divorce, separation, poverty, alcohol- are not present. Still Billy’s problems are real and he faces them with determination and with help from intelligent, fallible, loving adults. This is a good first chapter book for competent 2nd grade readers, though the vocabulary may be a slight challenge. First graders will listen with interest to the story but. 6th graders may be beyond Billy’s problems.
How does the perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/ability make a difference to the story? Billy’s father is an artist, waiting for a breakthrough, who stays home with Billy and Sal while Billy’s mother teaches in high school. This is a white, middle class home in a small Wisconsin town.
Theological Conversation Partners: Like all good literature Billy is more than a good read; it is a mirror that helps us see ourselves. Early elementary children are not terribly introspective but Billy is a good first step in the self examination that is a part of prayer. Elementary readers will recognize themselves in these pages. Peers affect how they feel about themselves and their work. They compare themselves with others. Siblings make them angry. They are anxious, insecure, self confident, all in a matter of minutes. They take adult help and family love for granted. Recognizing and talking about these feelings and experiences in the light of God’s love may make both adult and child more sensitive to where God is at work in our lives and where we need God’s help. Self examination and prayer go together. (Ps. 139:23,24;, 2 Corinthians 13:5a) For a Christian disciple the standard for comparison is Jesus (Phil. 2:5, Ephesians 5:1), a concept adults should grasp while children are only growing into this. The Bible is rich in assurance that God cares about us and our smallest problems. (Ps. 66:19, Ps. 138:3; Luke 12:6,7; Matt 7:7-11; 1 Peter 5:7) Adults can find clues here to affirming children without excessive, exaggerated praise to build self esteem.
Faith Talk Questions:
- The author writes about the four important people in Billy’s life. Who are four important people in your life? What do they do for you? What do you do with and for them?
- Billy couldn’t talk about his fears concerning his head injury or his actions that could make Ms. Silver think he was making fun of the chopsticks in her hair. “He had words in his head but they didn’t always make it to his mouth.” Does this ever happen to you? Why is it hard to talk about fears and actions that could be misunderstood?
- What effect did students laughing at his remarks have on Billy? Do you like for people to think that you say funny things? Why or why not?
- At first Billy liked his bat cave; then he didn’t. What made him change his mind? How do you decide when you have done good work?
- Why does Emma Sparks make Billy feel uncomfortable and angry? How does he handle this?
- Are there people in your class or neighborhood that make you feel slow or dumb or awkward? Why do they have that effect? Can you change this? Can you talk with God about this?
- Do you ever compare yourself with other people or your work to other people’s? With whom should a disciple of Jesus compare him or herself?
- Billy’s moods or feelings change quickly. What are some of these feelings.? Do you ever have these feelings? What causes you to feel good or sad or excited or angry?
- Are these feeling something that you can talk with God about? Does God care about our feelings?
This review was written by regular contributor Virginia Thomas.
The Year of Billy Miller by Storypath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.