I bought The Year of Billy Miller at the beginning of summer thinking this would be a great book to read to the kids during the break. It sat in the living room for a couple of months, and even went along on vacation with us, but we never managed to crack it open. Finally, I started reading it to my girls right around the time school started a couple of weeks ago and I immediately regretted not having started it sooner.
First, I should say that everyone involved, my six-year-old girls and I, were familiar with Kevin Henkes from some of his shorter books like Lilly’s Chocolate Heart, the Penny Books, and Julius, the Baby of the World. Billy Miller was the first novel of Henkes’ that we’d read, but we had big expectations based on his other books and the fact that Billy Miller is a Newbery Honor book.
When it comes to read aloud chapter books, we’re kind of on the tame side. Like any good parents these days, we’ve overly sheltered our children to the point that the site or description of even mild violence or tension can make the girls run to their closets and hide for hours. Also, we try to steer clear of books that have main characters that are unnecessarily mean or sassy, or in any other way interesting. So, finding a decent chapter book that actually entertains all of us and meets our 1950’s-style standards can be challenging. Billy Miller isn’t exactly Beaver Cleaver, but the book fit our standards nicely. Billy is a modern boy with a modern family–a working Mom and an artist Dad who stays at home with Billy’s younger sister. Billy’s story is simple, but simple in the way that many real young kids’ lives and concerns are simple, and in that way I think it was easy for my girls to relate to.
While the book runs chronologically through Billy Miller’s second-grade year, the focus is on his relationship with four key people in his life: teacher, father, little sister and mother. All of these characters and more (friends, babysitters, his sister’s collection of plush whales) appear throughout the book, but Henkes divides the book into four sections to focus on stories drawn from Billy’s four main relationships, ultimately ending on a very beautiful story about Billy, his mom and an end of the year school project. My girls and I found the book funny, with Billy’s little sister getting lots of laughs from my girls, and touching, with very little in the way of high drama–just the way we like it.
The girls liked it so much, that no matter what they were doing or playing with, they would always drop it at the suggestion that we read more Billy Miller. Getting them to take a break from playing with their dolls right now is like prying a baby gorilla from its mother’s arms. So, Mr. Henkes, consider that a 10 out of 10 from my kids. We all really enjoyed reading the book together, and I’d highly recommend it to any parent looking for a good chapter book to read together with their early elementary school children. One tip though: it makes a much better read than living room decoration.