There are lots of great books out there for middle graders and older elementary schoolers. There are lots of fun and interesting pre-school and very early reader books. Whole franchises have been built around simple chapter books. And, there are certainly some fine books for adventurous second grade readers. But, most of those second grader books are introductory level fantasy/adventures or semi-frantic sort-of-zany school daze tales. Then we have "The Year of Billy Miller". It would be easy to rhapsodize about this book and I certainly wouldn't fault anyone for doing so. It is calm, gentle, sweet and knowing, but for all that it takes considerable risks.
Billy is entering second grade and has doubts about his ability to handle it. On top of that, as the story progresses, he has concerns about a variety of other problems that can plague 7 year olds - like whether his new teacher likes him, how to address his parents in a more "grown up" manner, how to deal with anger at his younger sister, nightmares, and the list goes on. Now, this isn't a "problem" novel or a disguised parenting manual. It is an engaging sort-of-stream-of-consciousness novel in which an appealing decent kid expresses his hopes and fears and joys in an honest and authentic fashion. The author's genius is in expressing all of those thoughts in a convincing and not at all precious manner, in avoiding or at least completely refashioning all school story clichés, and then in arranging the action and developing the plot in such a way that Billy's various issues are addressed and resolved in a satisfying and usually touching way.
Treatment of all of the characters is generous. Billy's Momma and Papa are well rounded; sister Sal is alternately annoying and lovable; the teacher Ms. Silver is ideal; friends and classmates are just sketched in, but with nice, telling details. Each episode is developed just enough to allow for some resolution and then we move on to the next event, so young readers can enjoy and identify with the action and then move on. The result is that the read is touching and insightful and yet also brisk and manageable. It's not cartoonish and it's not Henry James, but is, rather, honest well-written second grade literature. What a nice find.
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