The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes, 229 pp, RL 3

Before I officially review The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes, an author who writes and illustrates for all levels short of YA, I'd like to take a paragraph to talk about the rare and marvelous perspective he brings to all his books. One review of The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes describes and praises the book in this way, "Billy Miller's second-grade year is quietly spectacular in a wonderfully ordinary way." This description could actually describe all of Henkes's books, from his picture books to his beginning readers featuring Penny, to his chapter and middle grade books. Henkes has a brilliant way with the "quietly spectacular" and the "wonderfully ordinary" that is difficult to capture in a review and unique in the world of kid's books. The stories he tells may seem quiet and small, but the characters he creates are vividly memorable and emotionally resonant. What makes Henkes's books endearing and enduring is his seemingly effortless understanding of children as well as parents and his ability to translate this subtly to the page, both in text and in illustrations. As Priscilla Gillman says in her review of The Year of Billy Miller for the New York Times, "The adults in the novel help Billy and his younger sister, Sal, in the same way that Henkes helps his child readers, not didactically, but organically, by recognizing their vulnerability, sanctioning their anxiety, and encouraging them to face challenges with confidence and ingenuity." Because it's so hard to convey this quality in a brief description of the plot of one of Henkes's books, I entreat you to read all of his picture books and at least one of his chapter books to experience the quality of his writing for yourself.

Henkes's book begins, "It was the first day of second grade and Billy Miller was worried. He was worried that he wouldn't be smart enough for school this year." Billy Miller's year begins in the summer, just before the start of the school year, when a serious fall leaves him with a lump on his head that won't go away, but with no other outward signs of injury or damage. But, when Billy overhears his mother worrying to his father that there might be lingering effects of the fall that show up later, that he'll "start forgetting things," Billy begins to worry as well. The Year of Billy Miller is divided into four parts: TEACHER, FATHER, SISTER, MOTHER. In these four parts, the reader sees Billy interacting with each of these important people in his life in ways that give depth to his character and show the importance of seemingly small everyday situations. Billy thinks he has made a bad impression on his new teacher, Ms. Silver and, with the logic of a second grader, thinks of a way to show her that he really is a nice person. When Billy has to make a diorama for school, his father, a sculptor and artist, lends a hand, even finding a way to turn the disaster of Billy's little sister, Sal, getting her glitter in his bat cave, into an asset. While I loved every part of The Year of Billy Miller, my favorite part is SISTER, when we see the complex relationship between siblings. Three year old Sal, with her grungy pillowcase of "nearly identical, pale yellow plush whales," collectively known as the Drop Sisters because all their names have the word "drop" in it (Raindrop, Gumdrop, Dewdrop, Lemondrop, Snowdrop) is the right amount of Ramona and Clementine-esque and realistic. When their parents leave them home overnight with a sitter and Billy's best friend can't sleepover and stay up all night with him as they had planned, Billy decides to go it alone. When that proves too hard, he makes his way to Sal's room and wakes her up, telling her there is a prize in it for her if she can stay awake all night. Experiencing the interactions and conversations between the two feels like a rare glimpse as seen through the crack in a door when spying on your kids, as I'm sure all parents do. The final part of the book, MOTHER, begins with a class assignment in which Billy has to write a poem about a family member for a show his class will put on and his worries over hurting the feelings of the parent he doesn't choose to write about. Billy makes his choice and writes a poem that is at once beautiful and touching and simplistically childlike. And with this, The Year of Billy Miller ends on a very sweet note.

One concern of mine when I first started reading The Year of Billy Miller is the length of this book. At 229 pages, this seems like a book that is too long for the very audience it is intended for. However, the font in The Year of Billy Miller is larger than typical and Henkes's provides a handful of spot illustrations scattered throughout. In reality, this book is probably closer to 150 pages. Ultimately, this probably doesn't even bear mentioning, however my nine year old third grader is at the critical stage in his reading career where he is transitioning from chapter books to novels and the the page count of book, or even the perceived thickness, can be an instant game changer. Consider reading The Year of Billy Miller out loud at bedtime - it is calm, but interesting. It won't keep listeners awake or necessarily clamoring for another chapter, but it will leave them interested, thoughtful and wanting more.

The Kevin Henkes Catalog:

Chapter Books

The Penny Beginning to Read Books

                                                                                Penny and Her Song

The Mouse Books (and one rabbit...)

More Picture Books 
(all of these books, with the exception of BIRDS, which Henkes did not illustrate, are available in BOARD BOOK format, for which they are ideally suited!)

Source: Review Copy


Literary Celebrity Guest Review : By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder, reviewed by Annie Barrows, 304 pp, RL 4

I have tried not to insert my voice into these very special guest reviews, but, four reviews into this project and I have noticed a theme that makes me very excited. Tom Angleberger, Jonathan Auxier and Lesley L.L. Blume have all championed books in ways that buck the critics or challenge readers to take a new look, open their minds or push the envelope of traditional ideas when choosing a book. Annie Barrows continues this theme with a review that takes an honest look at one in a series of a classic work of children's literature while also offering some great insight into what makes a readable kid's book. Thanks to my guest reviewers! Enjoy!

By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Because I am a horribly contrary person (just ask my editors), I am not reviewing a book I loved as a child. I’m reviewing a book I didn’t love: By the Shores of Silver Lake, the fourth book in the classic and magnificent Little House series—fourth by my reckoning anyway; I don’t count Farmer Boy (It’s not about Laura! It’s about a BOY!). I loved the Little House books as a kid and I love them now. In fact, I think that they are, as a whole, the Great American Novel, the ultimate expression of the celebrated idea that an American’s truest and best life is spent in the search for the freedom to become completely self-defined. It pleases me hugely that the Little House books chronicle the achievement of this goal, that the author and the protagonist are female, and that our hero manages to define herself without murdering anyone. Take that, Cormac McCarthy!
            Have I digressed? Yes, I believe I have.  As much as I adored the series, I did not love—or even like—By the Shores of Silver Lake.  As a kid, I was much given to rereading, and it’s likely that I read all the other Little House books over a hundred times. By the Shores of Silver Lake I read twice. It was no good.
            That’s what interests me now. Why was it no good?  What about the rest of the series was betrayed by Silver Lake? 
            I used to think that the problem was the opening of the book. The curtain rises on bummer-land: The family has had scarlet fever. They’re broke. Mary is blind. The dog dies. And, very disconcertingly, four years have passed since the end of the previous book.  Laura—our hero—is now twelve. Clearly, the elided years were not good ones.
            However, these disasters are recounted very swiftly, in two chapters, and by page 15, the Ingalls family is on the train, going west. Things are looking up and a new life beckons at the railroad camp where Pa has become the paymaster.  Much of the book narrates Laura’s experience during the building of the railroad and then the building of the town around it.
            This, I think, is where the problem lies.  All the other books (with the arguable exception of the last, These Happy Golden Years) show us a world built by individuals. Pa chops down a tree to build Ma’s rocking chair. He shoots a deer to eat for dinner. Ma makes cheese, dresses, dolls, and maple syrup. Everything that happens is the result of unmediated action by our characters. There’s no incomprehensible, intangible middleman; there are no parts that have to be obtained before you can make what you want; there is no information that’s missing. You want it; you make it; it’s done. This is pre-industrial life, and it is immensely satisfying to children. It makes sense. It’s the world configured in a way that a kid can comprehend and, what’s more, succeed in.
            By the Shores of Silver Lake is a different place altogether. Pa is an employee, not a free man, and their house is built with bought lumber.  Trains figure heavily in this tale—gone is the covered wagon that make a getaway whenever the whim struck. To ride a train, you have to know the schedule and then you have to pay actual money.  Both of these are grownup mysteries; children don’t keep schedules and they don’t have money, and so the story recedes from their grasp. The world depicted is impossible to attain. We are distanced again when the Ingallses arrive at Pa’s railroad camp, where the men are grading the track. The making of a railroad is technology, it proceeds in stages, it demands expertise and team effort. One human cannot make any difference to its construction. It doesn’t matter what the Ingalls family values, what they’re like and what they can do.  They are cogs in a larger system.
            We hate that. Kids, especially, hate that. As kids are often cogs in some grownup’s system, it’s no pleasure to read about cog-ship.
            The best thing about By the Shores of Silver Lake (aside from the cool scene with the wolf) is that it makes clear the glory of the other books in the series. From the discontents of Silver Lake, the reader emerges with a sigh of relief to The Long Winter—my personal favorite of the series—in which the Ingalls family soldiers through the world’s worst-ever winter without furnaces, shops, crops, Polartec, neighbors, or even coffee.  They twist hay to survive, twist it with their own hands. Whew! We’re back in a place where effort is directly related to outcome!  And, freezing or not, this is a much more congenial place for a kid to be. 

An abridged biography of Annie Barrows:
I was born in San Diego, California, in a year with a six in it. Also a two. You figure it out. 

There was a ghost in my aunt’s house.

After I learned how to ride a bicycle, I went to the children’s library at least twice a week. The librarian was Mrs. Marian. I loved her.

Girls couldn’t wear pants to school until I was in fourth grade. On the very first day that we were allowed, I wore a turquoise blue pantsuit. Jimmy Basore pushed me down on the playground, and I got a rip in the knee of my pants.

After I graduated from UC Berkeley, I became an editor. I edited (not all at once) art criticism, textbooks for high-school students, a fiction and poetry magazine, short stories, and then, finally, books. After I had edited a couple hundred books, I decided that I could probably write one myself. So I went to writing school (that was a lot of fun) and I wrote a bunch of books for grown-ups. If you’re interested, and I don’t see why you should be, there’s a list of them here somewhere.

I also got married and had two daughters, Clio and Esme. When Clio was little, she was the kind of person who wanted to hear the books she liked at least fourteen times in a row. Luckily, I am the kind of person who likes to read books fourteen times in a row. We spent a lot of time reading. While I was reading all those kids’ books (and again, a few years later when I was reading them to Esme), I paid a lot of attention to how they were made and what made some terrific and some crummy.  I remembered the books I loved when I was young and I remembered how important they were to me. And I thought: I want to write children’s books. 

Books by Annie Barrows:

(the sequel, Magic in the Mix, is due out this fall!!!)

ivy + bean

(you can read my review of Book 1 here!)


Ivy + Bean by Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, 120 pp, RL 3

The ivy + bean series of chapter books written by Annie Barrows and illustrated by Sophie Blackall debuted in 2006 and has been going strong since then, with book 10 in the series published in the fall of 2013! I have been meaning to review this series since I started this blog in 2008 and have been meaning to review this series since then, especially since, like Megan McDonald's Judy Moody series, these books are a great bridge between chapter books (like Magic Tree House and Junie B Jones) and middle grade novels. In 2010 I reviewed Annie's other book for kids, The Magic Half. I adore this book and think of and recommend often and am absolutely thrilled to hear that there will be a sequel coming soon! Annie also cowrote with her aunt, Mary Ann Shaffer, the very popular work of epistolary fiction for adults, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, which is a constant favorite with book groups.

So, who are Ivy and Bean and what is so great about them? Ivy and Bean are two seven year old girls who live on Pancake Court at the end of a cul-de-sac. Book 1 begins with a chapter titled, "No Thanks," which details Bean's (real name Beatrice Blue) reasons for not wanting to play with the new girl, Ivy. Ivy always had her nose in a book. Reading made Bean jumpy. Ivy always wore a dress and kept her long red hair in a headband. Bean had short black hair and couldn't keep a headband on her head, let alone tolerate wearing a dress. Most of all, though, Bean was sure that Ivy had "never stomped in puddles" or "smashed rocks to find gold" and most definitely had never climbed a tree and fallen out. Bean "got bored just looking at her." The first few pages of ivy + bean are so rich with description and detail, the characters cut so clearly, that it's hard not to want to know more about these two kids. Is Ivy really as bad as Bean thinks she is? Is Bean really as opinionated and stubborn as she seems to be? It takes an annoying older sister and a trick with a $20 bill gone wrong to find out.

When Bean tries to get back at fussy eleven-year-old Nancy for making her suffer through an afternoon of clothes shopping, she finds herself on the run instead. Ivy, who has been sitting on her porch in a dark bathrobe with badly drawn paper stars and moons taped to it, a gold stick in her hand, rescues Bean from a stick situation by making her close her eyes and sneak to a secret place. It turns out to be Ivy's backyard, which is not a secret as a cave, Bean thinks, but this gives Bean (and the reader) the chance to peek into Ivy's life and find out what she is really like. Turns out this quiet bookworm has a lot going on! Her room is divided into five neat sections, chalk lines on the floor separating them. There is a little area with a tiny couch and a bookshelf, another with art supplies and one section with nothing but dolls. All sorts of dolls, even a rock with a doll's dress on. And, in the center of all these dolls is a Barbie wrapped up in toilet paper. She is a mummy and Ivy is planning on building a pyramid on top of her as soon as she can figure out how.

Seeming opposites, Ivy and Bean are perfectly matched - imagination equals. This seemingly short book has so much going on in it - from a dangerous trek across four fenced backyards to a spell that can make a person dance forever that requires at least ten worms, to a plan to convert one section of Ivy's room to a potions lab - you'll be amazed. And completely entertained, of course. Add to this spectacular story Sophie Blackall's pitch perfect illustrations (especially Nancy getting worms thrown in her face) and this series is impossible not to love. Alone, these are two pretty sharp, creative minds. Together, who knows what Ivy and Bean will get up to? Actually, since I have taken so long to review this series, you have 9 more books worth of imagination and adventures with these two, and hopefully more to come!

ivy + bean 1 - 10

The ivy + bean Paper Doll Set, which can be purchased here

ivy + bean dolls made by Madame Alexander

The ivy + bean Button Factory that can be purchased here

Source: Library Book