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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Year of Billy Miller (and Other Beginning Chapter Books)

It was the first day of second grade and Billy Miller was worried.  He was worried he wouldn’t be smart enough for the school year.

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.



Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. I will take Clementine or Alvin over Billy. Unlike PENNY AND HER MARBLE I felt like the third person narration of BILLY MILLER removed the reader too far away from his emotional world. Since not a lot happened in his physical world, there wasn’t much to connect me to his story. I’m begging to believe that for Henke less is so much more. With the brevity of words on the page for PENNY he managed to connect us so directly with her emotions which was lost in BILLY.

  2. “and perhaps just as funny, too” – let’s not get carried away, here, Jonathan. Clementine and Alvin are obviously funnier, and I don’t think Henkes is even trying to compete there. It’s very hard for me to compare this book to SPRING TRIP for so many reasons–Clemetine is so very dear to me (not least because she reminds me so much of my own daughter), and I, like you, prefer my books funny. That said, SPRING TRIP didn’t stand out from the series, for me (oh, how I long to go back in time and give a Newbery to THE TALENTED CLEMENTINE, my own pick for the best of the series).

    THAT said, I know we’re not supposed to compare to older books, so just taking SPRING TRIP vs. BILLY MILLER, I think it is a close call. For BILLY MILLER, I was quite impressed by the structuring around important people in his life–especially given that the novel is a bit long for an early chapter book, this structure gives the early reader something to hang onto to keep it simple. Plus, I just felt that it allowed Henkes to really get deeply into each relatioship (or at least the way Billy perceived those relationships) quite well. Pennypacker tends to have her narratives come to a head, with several threads resolving at the end, which is great, but there is certainly something to be said for the simplicity of BILLY, with regard to respecting a child’s understandings.

    SPRING TRIP, on the other hand, has a lot more humor, a stronger voice and style, and maybe a better plot. But theme is a bit more murky (esp. compared to TALENTED! I know, I know, I’ll stop), compared to BILLY MILLER’s.

    Considering that I’m not terribly blown away by many of the MG novels this year, I’d be really happy to see either one of these with an Honor.

  3. I thought the relationships were well done, and the thought processes seemed authentic to me. I already have one mother thrilled to share this with her introspective, sensitive son.

    The plot(s), such as they are, border on cliche. (Kids attempt to stay up all night – and shockingly they fail to do so!) If I stop thinking about what is happening in the story and instead focus on how the story explores the way the characters are feeling, and the ways in which many kids will identify with those larger picture emotions, I can forgive the predictability. Still, it doesn’t make for an argument that the plot is much more distinguished than other books this year.

    Neither is the setting particularly well done. It’s not badly done, but it’s very generic. In some ways that serves the larger book as a whole, since a second grader is not focused on what makes his town distinct, but rather takes for granted that his world is universal. But again, that’s another area where it is not difficult to come up with titles for books that are more distinguished in this area.

    Billy’s thoughts and worries seemed almost universal to me. Almost too much. They seemed the sorts of responses that many children would have in a similar circumstance, rather than the very specific worries of a specific boy. Does that make it brilliant characterization, or too vague? Similarly, I can’t decide if the fact that the narrative is so squarely focused on Billy that other people appear to exist only in relationship to him (Papa’s frustrations seemed like a plot contrivance to allow Billy to solve a problem, and everyone else is either uniformly nice or uniformly bossy) is a masterstroke showcasing how young children are concerned with the emotions and feelings of others while at the same time still fundamentally self-centered in the literal sense, or whether it is just vague characterization.

    I liked this book a lot. But when I try to come up with ways to make an argument that it is the most distinguished in multiple dimensions of the criteria, I struggle. It’s odd, because in some ways the “speaks to the audience” dimension being so well done is what makes the setting, characterization, and plotting vague.

  4. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    Alys, you’re on to something at the end there; part of what I like so much about the book is that it’s very focussed, not ranging too far at all, lets the reader concentrate on this one thematic set of episodes in Billy Miller’s life. I *think* that this is indicative of it being very attuned to its audience…so that, even though setting or plotting or characterization might seem “vague” if compared to DOLL BONES or TRUE BLUE, they are actually perfect for younger readers.

    I say I *think* because this is an age group I have the hardest time figuring out. I’m curious to hear if anyone has 6 or 7 year old reactions to it to share.

    • Robin Smith says:

      Well, I am reading this aloud to my second graders right now and they love it. Does it grab them the way Stone Fox did? No. It’s just not that kind of a book. But, they have laughed and laughed over Sal’s stuffed whales, the Drop Sisters, and were overcome with the idea of having a “food baby” from eating too much.
      I think this is a book that speaks directly to children of this age. My students have identified a boy in the class who reminds us of Billy–nervous, insecure, hates his sister at times, and loves her at others. They love Billy’s artist father and are wistful at the gentle way the parents talk with Sal and Billy. We aren’t quite finished, but the class loved the way Billy chose to write the poem about Mama.
      While I love Clementine, as it’s a series that gets better as Clementine ages, sometimes her antics are a little over-the-top for regular old kids. Whenever I read the first aloud, they adamantly protest that her behavior with the hair cutting and painting is babyish. They do not think any self-respecting second (let alone third) grader would ever cut her hair.
      Billy seems more real, especially to the boys in the room who are calmer, introspective worriers–and worrying is a hallmark of development for 7 and 8 year olds. (In most second graders these days, kids are 7 and 8, not 6 and 7. The redshirting of kindergartners means old second graders.)
      It’s a joy to read aloud, calm and gentle. I know they will love reading it to themselves when I am finished.

      • Laurie Chudzinski says:

        I agree- this is a very calm and gentle book, and so needed in our often “busy, busy, busy” circle of life! You’re so right, this is a great alternative to the Clementine’s, Junie B’s and the host of other books featuring less than stellar behavior among the characters- and many kids do not identify with this behavior. Many of Billy’s observations and feelings felt very Ramona Quimby-ish to me…and I so liked it. While I do not feel it is Newbery material, I loved the book and I am so glad to hear that kids are enjoying it, too!

  5. Gaiman’s book is titled FORTUNATELY THE MILK, not UNFORTUNATELY. Unless he’s writing a second one and copying Remy Charlip…

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      There’s an idea!

      Didn’t realize this one was published just last week. I’ve had the ARC forever and just assumed it was a spring/summer title. Sorry!


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