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Guaranteed to shred your heart
on September 29, 2013
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 Amazon.com 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.