There was a reason Billy was worried. Two weeks earlier on their drive home from visiting Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills of South Dakota . . .
While I adore Kevin Henkes’s picture books–and easy readers–every bit as much as the next person, I’ve always found his novels a bit too quiet, introspective, and character-driven for my taste. THE YEAR OF BILLY MILLER certainly fits that profile, but I liked it as much as any of his longer works of fiction (and yes, that probably includes OLIVE’S OCEAN), and easily liked it better than JUNONIA, his previous effort for this audience. In our discussion of PENNY AND HER MARBLE, we noticed how attuned Henkes it to his young audience, and that’s evident in BILLY MILLER as well. I also mentioned in that discussion how a little humor goes a long way for me, whether it’s I BROKE MY TRUNK in the easy reader format or, say, THE ADVENTURES OF SIR GAWAIN THE TRUE in the beginning chapter book format. But, once again, I have to put my personal preferences aside and acknowledge that what Henkes is doing is just as distinguished in its own way–and perhaps just as funny, too.
How does THE YEAR OF BILLY MILLER stack up against other notable beginning chapter books this year? Very well, I think. I’d easily take it over Neil Gaiman’s UNFORTUNATELY, THE MILK, a wild little romp of a book, but one without any Newbery aspirations. I also think it compares favorably to a couple of recent entries in our favorite series, namely CLEMENTINE AND THE SPRING TRIP by Sara Pennypacker and ALVIN HO: ALLERGIC TO BABIES, BURGLARS, AND OTHER BUMPS IN THE NIGHT by Lenore Look. If this were the fourth or fifth book about Billy Miller, I don’t think it would have quite the fanfare that this first book does, but that’s not to say we should not treat this one as a serious contender. Rather, we should not chronically underestimate and undervalue the outstanding work of Sara Pennypacker and Lenore Look.