Customer Reviews: The Year of Billy Miller
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I don't readily compare books to Ramona (now THERE'S a sentence opener, ladies and gentlemen). To compare any children's book to Beverly Cleary's classic series just leaves one wide open to ridicule. The Ramona books are classics for a very particular reason; they place a sturdy, hard-as-nails finger directly on an age that is traditionally forgotten. Kids between the ages of six and ten are nebulous creatures. Too old to be cute little itty bitties and too young to enjoy the rights and privileges of their older kin, the 6-10 year old crowd straddles our traditional age ranges. Walk into any library or bookstore and you'll see titles for kids separated in a very particular fashion: picture books, easy readers (for when they're first learning to read), early chapter books (self-explanatory), and middle grade fiction. What's missing is what the Ramona books are. They're older than early chapter fiction but younger than middle grade. There is no term for this kind of book, and indeed it's one of the most difficult types of books to locate on a shelf. Now, at long last, The Year of Billy Miller comes to occupy that same space, but its similarities to Ramona don't stop there. Filled with heart, smarts, humor, and a boy-centric p.o.v. that is almost impossible to pin down, Henkes has finally done for the chapter book set what he's been doing for the picture book readers for years. He's created a character for the ages.

Billy Miller wasn't always worried that he wouldn't be smart enough for second grade. To be blunt, the idea never even entered his brain. Then he fell. It wasn't life-threatening or anything but that fall from a guardrail to the ground certainly gave him a bump on the noggin. When he heard his mom confess to his dad that she worried there might be some kind of permanent damage, that's when his own worries started. Fortunately his Papa sets him right telling his son, "... I know - and I know everything - that this is the Year of Billy Miller." Turns out, Papa's right. Between making up with his teacher, helping his Papa with his art, attempting to stay up all night with his little sister Sal, writing a poem about his mom and so much more, second grade is turning out to be a full year. And Billy Miller's going to be smart enough for all of it.

Boy books. Oh, they're all the rage these days, didn't you know? Seems you can't walk two steps out your door without being barraged by calls to come save the boys. They don't read enough... no wait, they read but they need their own books. No, think again, they need more nonfiction. Or is it sports stories? Or humor? However you choose to define them, boy readers are highly sought after. Getting their personalities down on paper, however, is remarkably difficult work. The lazy writers will just throw some gross details on a page and then call their work done. Sometimes there will be a reference to sports and the like, but so many miss the point. When you're writing the p.o.v. of a boy you need to know exactly what it is that makes that boy tick. Now take Billy Miller here. Early in the book his parents are talking about his recent bump on the head and his mom says, "But I worry that down the line something will show up. He'll start forgetting things." His father's dead-on reply is, "He already forgets things... He's a seven-year-old boy."

Evidence of Billy's boyness is everywhere. For example, when he's supposed to be writing a poem about his mother this is how the text explains his plight: "Billy had trouble getting started. He opened his poetry journal to the first page and wrote: My Mom. He couldn't think of anything else to write, so he drew a series of volcanoes in progressive stages of exploding." It would be difficult for me to explain to you how much I love that detail, but if pressed I would try. Then there's his nemesis Emster. Henkes never highlights this fact, but it's probably important to note that long before she's making Billy's life a misery, Billy cast the first shot across her bow. Which is to say, when she introduced herself in class as "Emster" he was the one who mistakenly (but buffonishly) misheard her as "Hamster". That's the kind of move guaranteed to make an instant enemy, and though Billy never remembers this moment again (and, if he did, it's difficult to say if he'd know why it was so important) it's clearly the catalyst for things that come.

Now consider the risk Henkes took with this book. His hero is seven. Yet Billy stars in a book that's 240 pages in length. There are some interstitial pictures, but nothing like what you'd find in the early chapter book section of your library. Even if you look up this title on something like you'll see that the suggested age for this book is "8 and up". Now does that make any sense at all to you? How many kids do you know that get a kick out of reading books about children younger than themselves? What we have here is a readaloud book. The kind of book meant for bedtimes and for those teachers who tackle a chapter a day in class. Henkes could have bowed out and upped his hero's age to nine or ten or even eleven. He didn't. He made Billy a 2nd grader because that's what Billy is. His mind is that of a second grader. His actions are those of a second grader. To falsely age him would be to make a huge mistake. Granted, Henkes risks alienating potential readers, but remember Ramona again. Aren't there older kids who like to read about her adventures? And hasn't she managed to last all these years in spite of these very concerns? You betcha. It's all about the writing, baby.

To point out that the writing in this book is superb is akin to pointing out that air helps one to breathe. It's obvious. This is Kevin Henkes, after all. Still, I've never quite connected to his novels in the same way that I've connected to his picture books. It's probably just me (the shiny Newbery Honor sticker on Olive s Ocean is a clue) but his magnificent ability to hone a point down to its most essential details is very well suited to a 32-page format. I hadn't felt a similar ability until I read Billy Miller. First off, the lines themselves are just keen. Here are two of my favorites:

"Billy had known Grace since kindergarten. She was so shy she seemed almost invisible. Like vacuums, her wide eyes were sucking in everything."

"Billy sat alone, considering the choice he had to make. He sucked the web of skin between his thumb and pointer finger, his hand falling across his chin like a beard."

Beautiful. Then there are the characters themselves, it's nice when the wise all-knowing parents (in this case, primarily the dad) is flawed. This is nice. He gets testy when his work isn't going well, which makes for a nice character detail. The mom sort of sinks into the woodwork (though she does have a nice moment with Billy when he has to write about what she likes) and it's hard to remember much about her, but the dad uses terms like "Isn't she cute? Just looking at her shreds my heart." Sal, Billy's little sister, is an appropriate mix of cute and annoying. Billy is a typical older brother but you have to love it when he freaks himself out by thinking of scary things in bed and runs to her room for companionship and comfort. It shreds my heart, it does.

In the end, The Year of Billy Miller is a stand-alone title that really does leave you wanting more. You've gotten so close to Billy and his family that they stick in your brain long after you've closed the covers. You can't help but hope that there are more Billy Millers on the horizon. To create just one would be a cruel tease. At the very least this book is a boon to any librarian who has faced a parent at a reference desk saying, "My kid loves Ramona. What else do you have like that?" Ladies and gentlemen, we have our answer. Absolutely remarkable.

For ages 5-10.
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on October 27, 2013
This is the story of, wait for it, Billy Miller. The book takes us from the start of 2nd grade to the end. This is a short book with fairly large print, but it's not just a "ready for chapter books" sort of book.

It features Billy's fears and worries and accomplishments. School stories are very popular, but tend to either feature bratty girls or older kids facing different concerns than a younger elementary school kid. I love that Billy's problems are totally age appropriate, and examine the feelings -- not just the events of trouble or misunderstandings.

If you don't think your kid would go for a more heartfelt story (there's humor, too!), do it as a read-aloud. Even better, because it might open the door to discuss his fears and worries.
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on November 21, 2014
I hate to be a dissenting opinion, but reading some of this book to my 7-year-old was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made.

I thought if my son heard about how a kid's worries worked out well in a story, he wouldn't be anxious about starting 2nd grade. I believe this book contributed to his anxiety, and he ended up very anxious during the first month of the school year. In each chapter, Billy has a new worry. As soon as it is somewhat resolved (although not really fully resolved) by the end of the chapter, a new worry replaces it. It just seems like worry after worry, and the kid isn't able to look on the bright side or point out things he is happy about (which I can't blame him considering all his worries).

I wish the content, problems, and worries were presented better. My kids are very optimistic, they like to look on the bright side, and when they have a problem, they like to discuss options for solving the problem. I don't see Billy doing much problem solving. Perhaps Billy's problems are all solved in the end of this book, but we never made it to the end. My sons (7 and 6) asked me to stop reading it half way through.

I have been reading novels to my kids for years. They have never asked me to stop reading one before this one. I'm glad other kids seem to like this; unfortunately, mine did not.

The writing quality is excellent, and that's why I gave it 2 stars, but that is the only reason. I would give the writing 5 stars if I could review writing quality by itself.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon November 14, 2013
There are lots of great books out there for middle graders and older elementary schoolers. There are lots of fun and interesting pre-school and very early reader books. Whole franchises have been built around simple chapter books. And, there are certainly some fine books for adventurous second grade readers. But, most of those second grader books are introductory level fantasy/adventures or semi-frantic sort-of-zany school daze tales. Then we have "The Year of Billy Miller". It would be easy to rhapsodize about this book and I certainly wouldn't fault anyone for doing so. It is calm, gentle, sweet and knowing, but for all that it takes considerable risks.

Billy is entering second grade and has doubts about his ability to handle it. On top of that, as the story progresses, he has concerns about a variety of other problems that can plague 7 year olds - like whether his new teacher likes him, how to address his parents in a more "grown up" manner, how to deal with anger at his younger sister, nightmares, and the list goes on. Now, this isn't a "problem" novel or a disguised parenting manual. It is an engaging sort-of-stream-of-consciousness novel in which an appealing decent kid expresses his hopes and fears and joys in an honest and authentic fashion. The author's genius is in expressing all of those thoughts in a convincing and not at all precious manner, in avoiding or at least completely refashioning all school story clichés, and then in arranging the action and developing the plot in such a way that Billy's various issues are addressed and resolved in a satisfying and usually touching way.

Treatment of all of the characters is generous. Billy's Momma and Papa are well rounded; sister Sal is alternately annoying and lovable; the teacher Ms. Silver is ideal; friends and classmates are just sketched in, but with nice, telling details. Each episode is developed just enough to allow for some resolution and then we move on to the next event, so young readers can enjoy and identify with the action and then move on. The result is that the read is touching and insightful and yet also brisk and manageable. It's not cartoonish and it's not Henry James, but is, rather, honest well-written second grade literature. What a nice find.
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on October 9, 2014
Coming from a teacher-in-training perspective, we saw some benefits from this book, but unfortunately Kevin Henkes fell short on his first novel.

Billy Miller is a second grade student who has self-esteem issues. Billy feels the need to be accepted, and have everyone's approval. He is also very self-conscious of his academic abilities. As Billy overcomes the challenges of a rude classmate, diorama project, grumpy father, a failed attempt at staying up all night, and a poetry reading in front of an auditorium, readers will re-discover or re-affirm what it is like to be in second grade. Henkes does a great job of demonstrating the many fears and worries of elementary school children.

Where Henkes falls short is the format and plot line. Each chapter is a small window into Billy's life with its own little climax and resolution, without any smooth transitions from one story to the next. This can make for a very choppy read. Also, each short story is unfortunately, not very exciting and seems to flat line. It is a very repetitive novel and constantly reinforces the theme of confidence building. Some second graders may delight in the slow-building story, while others may drop the book for it being too boring.

As future teachers, we found this book informative in how to be responsive to elementary school students and how to best encourage them academically and socially. Overall, this book might be an acquired taste for readers.
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on December 10, 2013
I read this book with my 7 year old daughter. I figured it would be interesting as my daughter is in 2nd grade, and so is Billy Miller and thus she would be able to identify with him.

I would say the book was just alright. We read the whole book, but it was simply a not-so-memorable experience. Nothing is wrong or offensive with the book, it's just that it's not interesting or creative enough. It's simply about every day things that happen to a 2nd grade kid at school and at home. There are no big dilemmas, there are no mysteries, and no real crisis. You could probably write the book about any random kid at my daughter's school, or my daughter for that matter, and it would be about the same.

If your kid has certain anxieties about school or about family interactions (e.g., getting along with a sibling), then this book might be a good way to get him/her to open up or for your kid to at least understand that such anxieties are normal for that age. If, on the other hand, you are a parent that actively talks about those things with your kid, then reading this book won't really add much: you'll read it and you'll forget about it in a week (my daughter certainly did).
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on August 17, 2015
This is one of the best books ever! My son and I read this book together when he was in 5th grade, and he did his back-to-school book report on The Year of Billy Miller. It was the very first book report on which he spent so much energy! He made his own book cover for the book, representing the things about the story that made an impact on him, and he wrote a synopsis for his back cover. Let me tell you, if MY 5th-grade-son got this involved in a project about a book he read during the summer? It's an extremely good book. Reading for fun means a comic book for him. He was hesitant when I showed it to him, but after I volunteered to start reading first, and he had questions and comments and, yes, laughter - it was on and popping! I know I haven't told you anything about the book - you can read that in the information above! This is the most important part - my non-reader was enraptured!
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on December 9, 2013
Billy Miller struggles with finding his way through the sorts of problems one would expect for a second-grader. He starts school on a wrong note and seeks to remedy the problem with his teacher. His father's artistic block causes tension in the family until Billy finds a way to help. Billy wants to stay up all night and hopes his little sister can help him do it. But who is he supposed to write his special poem about when he loves both his mom and dad? It's a puzzle, but Billy addresses the problem with his typical aplomb.

Strengths: Billy is an adorable character, very believable and endearing. Henkes demonstrates once again his superb understanding of childhood and the sorts of things that most kids worry about. The book would be a wonderful read-a-loud as it is full of character, heart, and beautiful writing.

Weaknesses: The only problem I had with the book was the length. The book is rather long (229 pages) for the target audience which would have to be first through third grades. I'm not sure older children would pick up the book.
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on November 10, 2013
The book is an arguably cute story about seven year-old second grader Billy Miller, and the bump on his noggin that makes him worried about starting second grade sets the tone for the rest of the story. He's the oldest sibling in a two-child nuclear household; Dad is an artist, Mom is a teacher. So far, so good. Billy has trouble sometimes with self-expression and verbalizing his feelings, which is vastly identifiable for many children, and especially boys, and he worries at the begining of the school year about whether he has offended his new teacher, Ms. Silver. In fact, interpersonal relationships are the primary theme of the book: family, friends, unfriends, teachers. Social anxieties and lack of confidence in developing skills are prominent throughout the story. Billy's struggles are, in short, completely identifiable. Whether to call his papa 'Papa' or 'Dad'. Whether the snotty girl in the class hurts his feelings. Whether he hurts someone elses' feelings. And there's an admirable example of sibling sharing that occurs in what might be the most touching moment of the book.

My concerns with the book are as follows: Billy vacillates as to whether or not he "hates" his sister, and at one point in the very short book he fantasizes about being a bat so he can bite, poison, and kill his female nemesis in the classroom. While I understand the emotions behind the sentiments of young boys fairly well having a Billy Miller aged son, I really wish that instead of being so relatable, he'd set a good example or offered coping strategies for those feelings.

And that's another thing: Billy Miller is, perhaps, too relatable to hold the interest of a young boy. Boys in the target age range for this book love action, adventure, and fantasy; they don't necessarily want to hear a story that's exactly like their life.

If you have a long car trip or this book becomes a trendsetter, read it - it's much better than Diary of a Wimpy Kid or lots of other books out there. It just isn't as good as it could be.
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VINE VOICEon December 24, 2013
This book is perfect for readers looking for a good story about a second grade boy. Billy is worried that second grade will be too hard for him. His parents both reassure him as does his teacher, but Billy has to experience the challenges of second grade for himself before he sees that the adults were right, and he can be confident in his own ability.

Dealing with his little sister, Sal, reciting poetry from memory at school, making a diorama for a school project - all these things help make Billy's second grade year memorable and a little bit more grown up and responsible.

Henkes has managed to capture what it is like to be a second grade boy, and shares the experiences through Billy Miller.

I loved reading this to myself, but can't wait to book talk it at school,and read it aloud to my girls at home.
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