Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Second Grade Challenge: The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

While Billy was eating his pancakes, Papa reread aloud the letter that Mrs. Silver, the second grade teacher, had sent.
In the letter, Mrs. Silver said that second grade would be "a safe, happy year of growth" and "a wonderful, joyful, exciting challenge."
Billy stopped chewing when he heard the word challenge. He put his fork down and touched the lump on his head.  He didn't want a challenge.

"Papa?" said Billy.
"Will I be smart enough for second grade?"

Billy Miller is worried. He fell off the statue of the Jolly Green Giant on his family vacation and got quite a lump on his head.  Since then, he's been thinking that maybe he's not as smart as he should be.  And now there's the challenge of second grade.

The challenge gets off to a bad start. Fascinated with the two chopsticks Mrs. Silver wears to keep her bun in place, Billy plops down next to his best friend Ned and immediately gets on the wrong side of the new girl, Emma.
Her eyes were slits, her arms were crossed and her fingers were drumming on her elbows.

"Excuse me," she said. "You're sitting at my place." She paused. "Unless your name is Emma Sparks, too. Then we have a problem."

Emma clearly doesn't find Billy Miller up to the challenge. And when Billy tries to get even with Emma by using two markers to make horns on his head, Mrs. Silver seems to think he's making fun of her chopsticks. Second grade is not looking good so far.

Billy is determined to impress Mrs. Silver with his habitat diorama. Dad helps him line his shoe box with dark gray crumpled paper to look like a cave, and Billy works hard to make a soaring bat seem to fly though the cave, and he is pleased with his product. That is, until his pesky three-year-old sister Sal, who is in the glitter-art stage, "improves" his project by shaking silver sprinkles all over it. But Mrs. Silver tells him how clever he was to show the mica in the rocks inside his cave, and Billy thinks maybe Mrs. Silver believes he is smart enough after all.

As the days of second grade go by, Billy's lump goes away, he seems to get smarter and smarter, and by the end of the year, he is proud to recite his original poem in front of everyone for parents' day.
He read his poem into the microphone from beginning to end in a voice that was made so big and loud and wide it seemed to bounce beyond the walls of school, reaching to the world outside, to the moon.

In his latest, The Year of Billy Miller (HarperCollins, 2013), Kevin Henkes, winner of both Caldecott and Newbery Awards, has fashioned a funny, sweet, and heartwarming story of  Billy Miller's year.  Billy's story is remarkable in the way growing up, little by little, is remarkable, and Henkes shows his insight into the psychology of youngsters just as he did in his delightful best-selling Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse and his poignant Newbery Honor Book, Olive's Ocean.  Pleasantly illustrated by Henkes (who earned a Caldecott Award for his art in his Kitten's First Full Moon,) this story of family and school life is a great beginning chapter book for primary graders. As Horn Book's starred review sums it up: "A vivid yet secure portrait of a boy coming into his confidence . . . [with] a comfortable rhythm perfectly suited to young readers. . . . Nuanced and human.”

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