Released in September of 2013, The Year of Billy Miller has received nothing but glowing reviews. We got the audiobook for long car trips (and bedtimes, and…), but I was surprised to find that after the big hit that was Fortunately, the Milk, my seven year-old son seemed nonplussed by this story of a seven-year old boy in second grade, despite having a myriad of parallels with the character. After listening to the entire thing along with him, I’m a bit conflicted about the story myself. Stay tuned for more after the jump.
Books are often the first exposure to art that children have. Keeping that in mind urges me to make the very best books possible. I know how important the books from my childhood were (and are) to me. Without them, I might not be a writer and artist today.
That Billy’s anxieties and problems are typical of elementary-school boys will comfort young readers. Billy is impulsive, distractible and has “words in his head” that don’t always “make it to his mouth.” He gets frustrated by fine motor tasks. He worries that his diorama looks as if “it was made by a 2-year-old”; he decides to write a short poem “because that would mean fewer words he might not be able to spell.” Fearing that “Mama” and “Papa” sound “babyish,” he resolves to call his parents Mom and Dad in public.
I agree with all of that. The book is an arguably cute story about seven year-old second grader Billy Miller, and the bump on his noggin that makes him worried about starting second grade sets the tone for the rest of the story. He’s the oldest sibling in a two-child nuclear household; Dad is an artist, Mom is a teacher. So far, so good. Billy has trouble sometimes with self-expression and verbalizing his feelings, which is vastly identifiable for many children, and especially boys, and he worries at the begining of the school year about whether he has offended his new teacher, Ms. Silver. In fact, interpersonal relationships are the primary theme of the book: family, friends, unfriends, teachers. Social anxieties and lack of confidence in developing skills are prominent throughout the story. Billy’s struggles are, in short, completely identifiable. Whether to call his papa ‘Papa’ or ‘Dad’. Whether the snotty girl in the class hurts his feelings. Whether he hurts someone elses’ feelings. And there’s an admirable example of sibling sharing that occurs in what might be the most touching moment of the book.
My concerns with the book are as follows: Billy vacillates as to whether or not he “hates” his sister, and at one point in the very short book he fantasizes about being a bat so he can bite, poison, and kill his female nemesis in the classroom. While I understand the emotions behind the sentiments of young boys fairly well having a Billy Miller aged son, I really wish that instead of being so relatable, he’d set a good example or offered coping strategies for those feelings.
And that’s another thing: Billy Miller is, perhaps, too relatable to hold the interest of a young boy. Boys in the target age range for this book love action, adventure, and fantasy; they don’t necessarily want to hear a story that’s exactly like their life.
If you have a long car trip or this book becomes a trendsetter, read it – it’s much better than Diary of a Wimpy Kid or lots of other books out there. It just isn’t as good as it could be.