Have you seen this list of children’s books to read again as an adult? A few of these titles are new to me – The Great Gilly Hopkins and I never did read Harriet the Spy. Others like The Westing Games are books I can’t wait to pass on to my nieces. As much as I adore children’s fiction, it hasn’t occurred to me to re-read childhoods favorites. I’d be sad if they didn’t hold up, but I’m curious to find out if Judy Blume still makes me laugh, or maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to read Judy Blume again. Who needs an excuse?
The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes received the Newbery Honor this year, so of course I loved it. It’s funny, my tastes in short fiction are completely out of sync with popular contemporary collections. Me and the Newbery peeps, however, are like two fingers twisted tight around each other.
As this is April and April is poetry month, I can’t think of a better time to read this book. It’s not completely about poetry, but it does delve into a child’s first experiences with poetry and learning to express himself with words.
This story walks us through a school year in the life of Billy Miller, an imaginative kid. We naturally begin in the fall when after a clumsy fall, resulting in a bump on his head, he’s worried he’s not smart enough. His papa eases his mind when he assures him that THIS IS GOING TO BE HIS YEAR. His new teacher catching him playing the smart aleck on the first day doesn’t start things off as he’d hoped, but by day two he’s full speed ahead.
The books is divided into four sections each named after a major figure in his life: teacher, father, sister and mother. Each of these people help him grow over the year in a very different, slice-of-life way. Self-conscious about sounding babyish, he tells his parents he’s going to start calling them “Mom” and “Dad” instead of “Mamma” and “Pappa”. These are small things in hindsight, but huge in a child’s life.
Billy has a relatively normal life, no secret powers or hidden worlds that need his saving. The story’s liveliness comes not from plot but from Billy’s wide-eyed perception and awesome character. Remember that ultimate childhood goal of staying up all night? How you think the sunrise is going to be so magical, but really it’s just the backyard getting lighter – at least that was my experience. Billy’s attempt is much more clever than me and my friends’ sleep-at-your-own-risk approach of sugar cubes and the threat of having your next day panties frozen.
Over the course of the year, Billy faces some fears, finds poetry in his mom’s response to a dead bird and bravely steps on stage. The story is perfect for reading aloud or with a kiddo. From the beginning, I found myself rooting for Billy to make this his year whatever that may mean for a second grader. What I loved best was the simple reminder of what it’s like to be that age. Second grade with Mrs. Wolverton was one of my favorite school years. Children don’t have bills to pay and challenges in their careers, but their worlds are just as rich and layered as everyone else’s – sometimes more so. I kind of want to go back!