The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

year of billy millerI am nothing like Billy Miller. I am not a boy. I have never lived in Wisconsin, and I didn’t attend public school in second grade. If I had, I would have been more like the book-smart, stuck-up Emma than Billy.

On the other hand, I am quite a bit like Billy Miller. My father was artistic and I called him Papa but was slightly embarrassed by this. Billy worries over things, and so do I. Billy cares about the people around him but sometimes hurts their feelings, even when he doesn’t mean to. This sounds uncomfortably familiar.

Billy takes a wonderful delight in the smallest of things–the trembling of a bat in a diorama, for instance. He’s not a superhero, or a larger-than-life character. He’s complex and contradictory, trying to grow up and find his way in a sometimes confusing world. He doesn’t always get everything right, but he tries really hard.

Just before I read The Year of Billy Miller, I attempted to read Kate DiCamillo’s latest, Flora & Ulysses. And I had to set it down after a few chapters. I’m sure it has its champions–a reader for every book, yes–and that they are responding to something I couldn’t see. I wanted to like it, the story of a spunky girl and her superhero squirrel. But there’s a kind of superficiality to it. It’s so shiny that I can’t get below the surface to the heart. Plus, the humor worries me–we have jokes about brain tumors, blind kids, and romance writers, and that’s just in the part I read.

But Billy Miller starts off with Billy worried about his upcoming school year, because he fell and bumped his head. He worries about his father’s lack of breakthrough, even when he doesn’t exactly understand what that is. He tries to stay up all night while his parents are away. There’s a realness to all of this, an everyday texture that makes Billy far more than an every-man hero.

At the same time, Billy is yet another white boy. He worries about whether his teacher thinks he’s a nice person, and his world is a very sheltered one. And yet, how often are boys told (implicitly or explicitly) that emotions are girly, not manly? Billy, who feels things intensely, who loves intensely, certainly provides a counter to this. I began thinking about this as I wrote this post and I don’t have an answer. I have a sense that somehow these things can be held in balance, and yet I don’t quite see how to do it.

But I do know that I loved reading this book, that I want to read more of Henkes’ chapter books, and that I want more books which aren’t afraid to take seriously the small concerns of childhood, to value them without laughing at or dismissing them.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2013, HarperCollins; J Fiction

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February 2014 reading list

Books I’ve already talked about
Picture Book Monday
Engines of the Broken World by Jason Vanhee
And All the Stars by Andrea K Host
The Bearkeeper’s Daughter by Gillian Bradshaw
Imperial Purple by Gillian Bradshaw
The Pride of Chanur by C.J. Cherryh
Such a Rush by Jennifer Echols
Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
Night at the Vulcan by Ngaio Marsh

Other books
Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle: This is a delightful middle grade book about a boy who wants to be on Broadway more than anything else. There’s a lot of heart and a lot of complexity to its portrayals of the different characters. The sequel is out now, and I can’t wait to read it!

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu: There are shades of Pinocchio in this middle grade fantasy, but it’s not as straightforward as a retelling. It does have a lot to say about what makes people ‘real’ and the lengths they’ll go to when they’re afraid.

The Wagered Widow by Patricia Veryan: Anna recommended Veryan as a good Heyer read-alike, and since those are few and far between, I jumped on this immediately. I enjoyed The Wagered Widow quite a bit! Although it didn’t reach quite the same level as my favorite Heyers, I will definitely be reading more of Veryan’s books.

The Naturals by Jennifer Lynne Barnes: Quickest summary? YA version of Criminal Minds, only slightly less creepy. I’m not sure I completely bought the solution to the mystery, but I liked the characters and it’s an intriguing concept. Definitely a quick, enjoyable read. (Plus a love triangle that did not hugely annoy me!)

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee: A middle grade retelling of “The Snow Queen”, sort of. I liked the way Foxlee played with the original story, while not simply telling HC Andersen over again. She certainly has a gift for resonant prose, and the characters were nicely drawn. I did spot the Big Bad very quickly, but I’m not the book’s target audience.

Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge: Several of my friends really, really loved this book, and so I had very high expectations for it. Unfortunately, something kept me from completely loving it, even though on paper it’s about the most Maureen-y book there ever was. I haven’t managed to put my finger on what that is, other than the fact that I never connected with the characters as I think I was meant to. Regardless, I’ll definitely be trying Hodge’s next book, because she’s clearly a gifted writer.

Snuff by Terry Pratchett: The last City Watch book, sniff. I liked the subtle Austen homage, and Sam in the country. The rest was fine, but didn’t quite click for me the way the best of the other books in the series did.

Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando: I very much enjoyed this YA book about two girls who are about to become college roommates. I liked their different voices and the way their relationship went through ups and downs. I also thought that Lauren’s family was a nice depiction of a bigger family that isn’t shown as rednecks or the Duggars.

Plus, I wanted to highlight my post on Fairy Tales and Retellings again, because I’m really proud of that one.

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Lent, reading, and where I am

Today is the first day of Great Lent, which starts the period leading up to Pascha. For Orthodox Christians, this is a really important and special time. This year I’ve decided to read juvenile & middle grade books, as well as some adult non-fiction. Right now I am re-reading Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s wonderful Gift From the Sea (prompted partly by a Twitter conversation with EWein). I’ll probably put some quotes from that on Tumblr, because it’s so, SO powerful.

But for this first week, I’ll probably be fairly quiet online. If you should need to reach me for some reason, feel free to send an email. As I said, I’ll probably be putting quotes on Tumblr and maybe checking Twitter a time or two. Real blogging will recommence next week, when I try to post reviews of all the books I’ve been reading and also go to a day of PLA and generally get overwhelmed and excited at the same time.


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Fairy Tales and Retellings

vasilissa the beautiful bilibin

Vasilissa the Beautiful by Ivan Bilibin

February 26th is Fairy Tale Day, which I didn’t know until recently. Fairy tales are a really important part of my internal mythology, so I thought I would take this opportunity to highlight some of them. For this list, I went with a fairly limited definition of fairy tales. I want to do another post that highlights some folk and fairy tales from other countries, but I thought including those here would expand the scope a little too much for one post.

I’ll also note that this is list is not meant to be exhaustive. I haven’t necessarily read all of the books here, and in the Middle Grade & YA Retellings section, I starred the books that I’ve actually read and recommend; the others I either had more mixed feelings about, or haven’t read yet. These are all, however, books I have some personal knowledge of. If there are great books I’m missing, let me know!

The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Arthur Rackham

The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Arthur Rackham

Classic fairy tale collections
Peppper and Salt by Howard Pyle
The Fairy Ring by Kate Douglas Wiggins and Nora Archibald Smith
The Blue Fairy Book (and sequels) by Andrew Lang
Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales (obviously the Pantheon version is the Only Correct Version)
The My Book House series has many folk and fairy tales in it.

Pepper and Salt by Howard Pyle

Pepper and Salt by Howard Pyle

Newer collections
The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon
The Fairy Tales by Jan Pienkowski
Fireside Stories: Tales for a Winter’s Eve by Caitlin Matthews and Helen Cann

Fairy Tales, by Jan Pienkowski

Fairy Tales, by Jan Pienkowski

Individual picture books
Vasilissa the Beautiful and The Firebird by Ivan Bilibin
Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges and Trina Schart Hyman
The Sleeping Beauty by Trina Schart Hyman
Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman
The Lady and the Lion by Laurel Long
The Tale of the Firebird by Gennady Spirin
Snow White and Rose Red by Kelly Vivanco
The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Mahon and Kinuko Craft
Beauty and the Beast by H. Chuku Lee and Pat Cummings

The Six Swans, P.J. Lynch

The Six Swans, P.J. Lynch

Middle-grade & YA retellings
East of the Sun, West of the Moon
East by Edith Pattou*
Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George
East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Jackie Morris Kessler
Ice by Sarah Beth Durst
The Twelve Dancing Princesses
The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell*
Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier
Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George
The Thirteenth Princess by Diane Zahler
Entwined by Heather Dixon
Beauty and the Beast1
Beauty by Robin McKinley*
Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley*
Of Beast and Beauty by Stacey Jay
Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley*
Briar Rose by Jane Yolen
Sleeping Beauty
A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan
Sleeping Beauty’s Daughters by Diane Zahler
The Wide-Awake Princess by E.D. Baker
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine*
Cinder by Marissa Meyer
Ash by Malinda Lo*
The Amaranth Enchantment by Julie Berry
Snow White and Rose Red
Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan*
Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede
Maid Maleen
Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale*
White Cat
White Cat by Holly Black*
Seven Swans
Swan Kingdom by Zoe Marriott
Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier
Deerskin by Robin McKinley*
Goose Girl
Goose Girl by Shannon Hale*
A Curse as Dark as Gold by Elizabeth Bunce
Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack by Shannon, Dean, and Nathan Hale*
Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth
Once Upon a Time series by various authors

Grimm's Fairy Tales, Pantheon edition

Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Pantheon edition

Adult retellings
The Firebird
In the Forests of Serre by Patricia McKillip*
Laura Florand’s books often have a fairy tale element to them, but since part of the fun is finding it, I’m not going to spoil them!

The Lady and the Lion, Laurel Long

The Lady and the Lion, Laurel Long

Other resources
Sur La Lune
My Pinterest board
Theodora Goss’s Pinterest board

1. Note on retellings of Beauty & the Beast and Cinderella: these are both really important stories in Western culture. I have not attempted to collect anything like all the stories that have an element of either, because that would be half the books ever published. Instead I’ve gone for those that are directly inspired by the fairy tales.


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Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Friendships

This is a post for Top Ten Tuesday, hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. You can find out more and follow along there!

This week, we are supposed to pick an older topic that we might have missed. As it just so happens, Rachel Neumeier had a post recently about relationships, both romantic and non-romantic. I found that I couldn’t name as many fictional friendships as I thought I ought to, so here is a list that’s at least a start. For the purposes of this list, I have only included friendships, not family relationships, even though those are also something I value a lot in books. So, in chronological order:

1. Frog and Toad from Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series. (I am Toad, for the record. I have even been known to mutter darkly, in moments of stress, “The whole world is covered in buttons, and not one of them is mine.”)

2.Betsy, Tacy, and Tib from Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy series. I love this series, and its three friends; I love Betsy Ray and her writing and acting; I love Tib and her fluffy curls; I love Tacy’s shyness; I love the chocolate-colored house and Deep Valley.

3. Anne Shirley and Diana Berry from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series. Are they really suited to be friends? Maybe not, but they are, and I love how they show such different ways of approaching life.

4. Costis and Gen from The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner: I could have put a number of relationships from this series on the list–Eddis and Attolia, Sophos and Gen, Gen and the magus–but the slow-growing, hesitant friendship between Costis and Gen is the relationship that drives the entire third book.

5. Taylor and Raffaela from Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta: I love how at the beginning of the book they don’t even seem like friends, and yet by the end of the story they’re clearly so important to each other. I love their shared history and the way they look out for each other.

6. Janet, Molly, and Tina from Pamela Dean’s retelling of Tam Lin: Janet is the main character and usually the most sympathetic, but I found this portrayal of being friends in college really rang true. I liked the way Dean shows the shifting stages of friendship, the ways that the relationship between the three changes over time.

7. Mae and Sin from The Demon’s Surrender by Sarah Rees Brennan: SRB did a very interesting thing with these two–she made them explicitly rivals, not over a boy, but over a Market. It’s something they both really care about, and yet they want to be friends and they have to find a way around that. It’s so neat.

8. Queenie and Maddie from Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein: Do I need to explain this? Oh, okay: “It’s a little like falling in love, finding your best friend.”

9. Rose, Roza, and Irina from Rose Under Fire, also by Elizabeth Wein: When I read RUF for the first time, I got to the line in Rose’s narrative about Roza and Irina being more than sisters, and I didn’t buy it. But by the time I got to that perfect, beautiful ending, I did.

10. Otter, Cricket, and Kestrel from Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow: One of the many things that Sorrow’s Knot did brilliantly was show a complex friendship, that’s in many ways the most important relationship in the whole book. These three are woven together so tightly; I have trouble thinking of one without the other two.

Honorable mention: Eileen and Polly from Connie Willis’s Blackout/All Clear

So what are your favorite friendships? What am I missing?

(I accidentally published a draft version of this yesterday–hit publish instead of save draft and then screamed, “NOOOOO!” at my laptop in a very dramatic fashion.)


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Recent Reading: 2-21-14

And-All-the-StarsAnd All the Stars by Andrea K Host: Several blogging friends have been praising Host’s books for a few years now and I finally got around to reading one. And All the Stars is marvelous–diverse, thoughtful sci-fi, which takes a somewhat improbable scenario and makes it real and human.

The Bearkeeper’s Daughter by Gillian Bradshaw: Historical fiction about Justinian and Theodora, with the focus on a probably-not-real son of Theodora’s. I liked the way Bradshaw weaves in the court history and politics while also keeping a very human and down-to-earth focus on John and his struggles.

Imperial Purple by Gillian Bradshaw: There’s a similar setting and ethos to this one, which looks at the end of Theodosius II’s reign. I found that having the main characters being regular people caught up in larger events gave me more of a sense of everyday lives, as well as being a perspective you don’t always see in historical fiction.

Pride of ChanurThe Pride of Chanur by C.J. Cherryh: Rachel Neumeier told me to read the Chanur books, so I did. :) I loved the way Cherryh keeps the narrative entirely from Pyanfar’s point-of-view, making it far more effective than splitting the story between characters. Perhaps because of that, I did feel a slight distance from the characters, more so than with the Foreigner books. Nevertheless, I am definitely invested enough to read the rest!


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Picture Book Monday: Feburary 2014

Open Very Carefully by Nick Bromely and Nicola O’Byrne: This one is interactive & mixed-up; it’s quite fun!

Knock Knock by Daniel Beaty: This one might come across as an issues book, but it has a very powerful message and a sincerity that kept it from coming across as too heavy-handed.

The World is Waiting for You by Barbara Kerley: There was a nice format to this one, with the images of kinds and then what their interests might lead them into. It’s STEM-y but there’s a sense of wonder and curiosity to it that makes it the best kind of STEM-related thing

Baby Bear by Kadir Nelson: Lovely, quiet story. However, I was a bit flummoxed by the ending, which didn’t at all provide the kind of resolution I was expecting. It felt like Nelson was trying to make some kind of point–about self-sufficiency? nature?–but I wasn’t sure what exactly that was and so it fell a little flat.

And the Cars Go by William Bee: Love! I will rant at length about picture books that rhyme, when they don’t need to and don’t have any real sense of rhythm or poetry. Here, it’s the opposite–a strong rhythm that doesn’t attempt to rhyme or be poetic but builds up into a marvellous cacophony of travelling sounds. Bee’s colorful illustrations are also great.

Patti Cake and Her New Doll by Patricia Reilly Giff: A bit precious, but sweet.

Little Frog’s Tadpole Trouble by Tatyana Feeney: I love Feeney’s books–her sense of line is great and she treads the tricky grey area between sweetness and sentimentality with a lot of grace.

Founding Mothers: With a focus on the women of the Revolution, this one has a great sense of forgotten history beyond the obvious.

Odd Duck by Cecil Castellucci and Sara Varon: Very enchanting! But the tea snob in me is offended by the fact that Lipton and Twinings are mentioned in the same sentence! *faints*

The Lost & Found Balloon: If this had simply been illustrations, I would have been completely charmed. As it is, I found the text heavy-handed and too limiting
The Case of the Missing Donut: It’s very fun! But I didn’t feel like it was a story that stayed with me in any way

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