Tuesday, October 15, 2013

2014 Second Takes: The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes

The Year of Billy Miller is a Kevin Henkes novel.

I feel like I can almost stop writing there. Henkes has notable strengths -- the uncanny feel for his child characters' thoughts and emotions, the simple and understated prose -- and they're in full effect here. If you like Kevin Henkes, any Kevin Henkes, you'll almost certainly enjoy Billy Miller.

However, I'm not sure how I feel about Billy Miller in the Newbery discussion. It's distinguished in characters, certainly, and it also has a lovely style. If you want to think about accurately portraying the thoughts and feelings of real people as "presentation of information," I'd give you that one too. It's a strong book, no question about it.

On the other hand, the setting doesn't come into particularly sharp focus; when at one point, Billy and his friend Ned mention the possibility of getting lost and walking all the way to Lake Michigan, I have to confess that I'd essentially forgotten that the book was set in Wisconsin. The argument could be made that it's the portions of the setting that are most relevant to a child that are most carefully delineated, such as Billy's home and school, but compared to many of this year's other strong contenders, I just don't think it's particularly noteworthy.

Maybe more importantly, the plot is loose at best. Billy Miller is episodic by design, and that's not in and of itself a problem, but I feel like the connections between the parts just aren't all that strong. Even within the sections, there's sometimes a weakness in construction. In the last part, for instance, Billy makes a special effort to surreptitiously take a pearl, which he had previously given to his sister Sal, from the box underneath her bed where she keeps it. He hopes that it will bring him luck at his poetry reading, and notes that he'll return it after the show. This sounds like the setup to a conflict -- but, aside from one line about Billy rubbing the pearl for good luck on his way up to the microphone, it's never mentioned again. This isn't the only thread that's discarded without having much of a payoff, and I don't think it helps Henkes' cause.

These are, to some extent, quibbles -- The Year of Billy Miller is, overall, very good, as one would expect from Henkes. But at this time of year, we're trying to zero in on the best of the best, and so quibbles become magnified in importance. As much as we all admire The Henk around here, I think Billy Miller doesn't quite reach the top tier of this year's Newbery candidates.

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