• Happy birthday to Avi (Nothing But the Truth, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle) and Erick Ingraham (Hot-Air Henry).
  • It’s the birth date of Otto Soglow (1900–1975), cofounder of the National Cartoonist Society, and creator of the long-running comic strip The Little King, which appeared in The New Yorker.
  • A few royal birthdays today: Natal anniversary greetings go to Akihito, the Emperor of Japan, and Queen of Sweden Silvia Sommerlath. Read The Birthday Ball by Lois Lowry, illustrated by Jules Feiffer.
  • It’s Festivus, a secular holiday introduced to popular culture by screenwriter Daniel O’Keefe, on the television show Seinfeld. One feature of this invented holiday is “The Airing of the Grievances.” Though not a children’s book per se, you may want to read Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us by Allen Salkin.

For Read a New Book Month, today I recommend one of 2013’s real gems, Kevin Henkes’s The Year of Billy Miller. Henkes has always shifted between picture books that delight young readers, such as Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse and novels for readers grades five and up like Olive’s Ocean. But in The Year of Billy Miller, he explores the world of second grade—as seen through the eyes of a very sensitive and delightful young boy.

“It was the first day of second grade and Billy Miller was worried,” begins the saga. That summer Billy has had an accident that leaves a bump on his head. Possibly he won’t be smart enough for second grade. But his father, whom he calls Papa, thinks otherwise. He tells his son that this year will be the year of Billy Miller.

And in four sections—Teacher, Father, Sister, Mother—Billy progresses through his second grade year with distinctly second grade problems. He worries about what his teacher thinks of him; he struggles with classmates who seem smarter; he decides to stop using baby names for his parents; he studies hard to commit poetry to memory and musters the courage to recite it in front of a scary, live audience.

All of his concerns and actions, never fantastic or overblown, are riveting because they come from the actual experiences of young schoolchildren. It is so difficult to write engaging fiction for first through third graders, but Kevin Henkes makes it look so easy. He has always been in touch with his childhood feelings and memories. His skills include a great ear for dialogue, superb word choice, the ability to delineate heartwarming characters, and a fabulous sense of humor. On many of the pages, Kevin has added simple drawings that augment the narrative. Once again proving that he stands as one of our most gifted contemporary creators of children’s books, Kevin has crafted a book that will leave readers smiling and completely satisfied. My friend Judy Freeman, who recommended this book to me, considers it a perfect masterpiece. And I agree completely.

So if you are hunting for something new for that first or second grader in your life, you can do no better than pick up The Year of Billy Miller. In an age when it sometimes seems books are getting more violent or cynical, this novel affirms that sometimes children remain kind and innocent. And it reminds us just how satisfying a well-written novel for children can be.

Here’s a passage from The Year of Billy Miller:


With his thick, work-gnarled finger, Papa lifted Billy’s chin. Their eyes met and held. “Ms. Silver and the great nation of China might think that this is the Year if the Rabbit,” said Papa. “But I know—and I know everything—that this is the Year of Billy Miller.Billy smiled. He couldn’t not. He repeated Papa’s words in his head. This is the Year of Billy Miller.

Originally posted December 23, 2013. Updated for .

Tags: Family, Humor, School
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for The Year of Billy Miller


  1. G. Perry says:

    I loved this book so much, I’m about to read it again.

    I suspect this is destined to be a classic.

    It really opened my eyes as to what a normal second grade experience should be, and funny thing is, I felt quite happy while reading it, which reminded all over again, that a good children’s writer can help not only a child, but an adult’s Growth Mindset as well. Especially one who had a very different early years experience than this little boy.

    A loving and great work Kevin. Thank you.

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Daily children’s book recommendations and events from Anita Silvey.

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