I 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