Wednesday, July 17, 2013

2014 Contenders: The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes

When I attend ALA, I usually approach author signings in one of two frames of mind. Sometimes - probably the majority of times - I am diffident and humble, giving them a quick "thank you" and getting out of their hair. This year, however, I went with the other approach, which I'll call "wild-eyed fangirl." I hugged Laura Amy Schlitz and took a picture in her hat. I burbled and enthused at Anne Ursu. And when I finally got to the front of the Kevin Henkes line, I burst out with, "THANK YOU FOR WRITING SO RESPECTFULLY ABOUT THE EMOTIONAL LIVES OF CHILDREN." 

Mr. Henkes looked a bit bewildered and murmured something noncommittal, but I went away satisfied, because really, he needed to be thanked. I can't think of anyone else writing today who approaches the inner lives of five, six, and seven-year-olds as if he's writing Mrs. Dalloway. As I noted a couple of weeks ago, the emotional authenticity of Penny and Her Marble puts it near the top of my Newbery list for this year. In 2011's Junonia, he portrayed a certain shade of disappointment so honestly that it backfired and made a lot of people dislike the character. (Not me, though - I was that quiet, slightly spoiled ten-year-old living a charmed but melancholy life. Thanks again, Kev!) No matter the age group, Henkes groks kids.

So I was pleased to see that, with his newest novel, Henkes is stepping into the early chapter book arena for the first time. The Year of Billy Miller is just that - a year in the life of a second-grade boy. Many of Henkes' novels defy conventional plot summaries, and I think the back flap copy on this one really misses the mark. "Laugh-out-loud funny!" it shouts. "Dioramas! A second grade poetry slam!" Calm down there, marketing folks. While this book does contain dioramas and a poetry program ("slam" is pushing it), it comes nowhere near that level of implied wackiness, and at no point did I find myself laughing out loud. This is not Clementine, and to market it that way is selling it short.

The Year of Billy Miller is, like most Henkes novels, a quiet, slightly melancholy meditation on a collection of moments. It is structured episodically, in four parts (Teacher, Father, Sister, Mother) that chronicle Billy's conflict and reconciliations with the people closest to him. The Teacher section, for example, has echoes of Lilly and her purple plastic purse, as Billy struggles to correct a humiliating misunderstanding with his new teacher. As he negotiates the parameters of his relationships, we see Billy grow and begin to come into his own, thereby fulfilling his father's prediction that this will be the titular "year of Billy Miller." Throughout the book, Billy takes tentative steps towards increased self-confidence and maturity, until at the climactic poetry reading, he shows us just how far he's come.

Billy Miller is primarily a character-driven book, and Henkes' beautifully complex characters are on full display. Billy, of course, is a wonderful, full-blooded second-grade boy, full of contradictions and half-baked ideas about the world. The other characters are fully realized as well, especially the occasionally moody stay-at-home artist dad. As always, Henkes uses his words sparingly but effectively, establishing character with telling details like the way the teacher involuntarily touches her hair when she thinks Billy is making fun of her chopstick hair accessories.

Stylistically, Henkes is a minimalist, and the early chapter book format is the perfect showcase for that. The scene where Billy and his mother bury a dead bird is one of the loveliest stretches of prose I've read this year - filled with sensory details - but it is almost entirely devoid of adjectives or adverbs. Joanne Rowling, take note!

If Billy Miller has a handicap at the Newbery table, it may be its episodic structure. Of course, that didn't keep The Graveyard Book from winning, and the two books share a thematic unity that ties the episodes together. My only other quibble: Henkes never really resolves Billy's conflict with Emma - a small but unsatisfying omission. Otherwise, this is definitely one of the year's best middle grade novels. 

Publication in September by Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins)


  1. I'm definitely looking forward to this book. I'm wondering if it would hold the interest of my five-year-old son? We've read many other chapter books, but I wonder if Billy's seven-year-old thoughts and experiences will be out of his reach?

    1. I think it would be a great read aloud for a five-year-old, if he likes school and family stories.

  2. I'm looking forward to this one. He's a genius, Mr. Henkes is.