A few weeks ago I watched a video of a literary event in Boston featuring Kevin Henkes talking about his newest book The Year of Billy Miller. As a part of this hour long event Kevin read the second chapter of his book and I held my breath. I have been holding my breath all this time waiting for my copy of this special book to arrive. It came on Friday and last night I sat down and read the whole thing - now I can breathe again.
Kevin Henkes has written my book of the year! The structure of this book is perfect. There are five parts and each part has five chapters. Within each part something happens to young Billy that will make you gasp but then in the careful and skilled hands of Kevin Henkes each disaster or potential disaster is gently resolved.
In part one, Billy is heading off to school for the first day of Grade 2. He is excited but also filled with awful doubts about his own abilities. Over the past summer Billy had a bad fall and while unharmed he did score a huge lump on his head. In an unfortunate twist of events Billy overhears his Papa and Mama talking :
"I'm worried about him,' said Mama.
'He's fine,' said Papa. Everyone said he's fine. And he seems fine. He is fine.'
'You're probably right,' said Mama. "But I worry that down the line something will show up. He'll start forgetting things."
There is a shadow hanging over Billy. He enters his new classroom, meets his new teacher Ms Silver (she is wonderful. Read this book and find out why I love her) and finds his new seat. His seat is beside an awful girl called Emma Sparks but Billy is so distracted with worry that he when she says her nick name is Emster he hears Hamster. This earns him a scowl from Emma and so begins one part of his year where Emma will take every chance to dent Billy's happiness. The first instance comes shortly after they meet. Ms Silver has two red chopsticks holding up her hair. Billy thinks they look cool. When Billy gets mad with Emma he picks up two red markers from his table and holds them above his head staring at Emma with the "meanest expression he could manage". At that moment Ms Silver walks by. Billy had intended the markers to look like devil horns but he immediately realises what he has done :
"Ms Silver thought he was making fun of her. She thought the two red markers were meant to be her two red chopsticks. She thought the ugly face he'd make at Emma was an imitation of her, Ms Silver. Billy didn't know what to do. What he wanted to do was run and run and run around the playground. Running always made him feel better. But he couldn't do that, so, in his journal, he drew a picture of a hamster and wrote: Hamsters small bad."
This is the part of the book that Kevin Henkes read. I was so worried for Billy. I wish I could tell you what Billy does to fix his mistake but I can only say read this book. Actually I am going to say that again. Read this book. Every part of this book is brilliant especially the final section entitled Mother.
Kevin Henkes is famous for his picture books like Chrysanthemum, and novels like Junonia. If you know any of his previous books I am sure you will be able to make links between them. I am a huge fan of Kevin Henkes and this newest book is such a joy to read. You could read this book aloud with your family. When you read the part called Father try to find a copy of Sloppy Kisses by Elizabeth Winthrop - the perfect picture book to accompany this section. I am so impressed by this book I am going to ask our NSW School Magazine bookshelf editors to include it for 2014.
If you need to read more of the plot here is a review in the New York Times. Here is the Kirkus review. The quote below comes from the SLJ.
To point out that the writing in this book is superb is akin to pointing out that air helps one to breathe.