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.
Bam! Kevin Henkes got me with those first two sentences in his engaging new novel. I read those lines, and then I couldn’t put it down. Because they rang so true — this is just what my young son might have secretly worried about…Do I measure up? — and immediately made me care about Billy.
Always brilliant at recalling and portraying the inner world of a child, Henkes nails the squirmy fears that roil around a seven-year-old boy’s head in this charming, very-Midwestern, amble through Billy Miller’s second grade year. For starters, Billy worries that the lump on his head from a colossal fall will make him not smart enough to handle second grade. He also has qualms about still calling his dad “Papa.” Is that too babyish now? Henkes deftly sketches out all the ups and downs of Being Seven — the humor and hopes and energy, the connecting of dots which adults would never think to connect, loyal affection for family, major annoyance with know-it-all Emma Sparks, small moments whch feel momentous, small comments that can shape a boy’s day — flattening him, or firing him with deep satisfaction as the case may be.
The main characters in this novel — Billy, his father, mother, little sister, and sublime second-grade-teacher Ms. Silver — are warm and genuine. I wish they were all my neighbors. In fact, in the entire cast of characters, only one is negative –loud-mouth Emma. Billy is not managing extreme troubles here, either. Instead, Henkes finds plenty of material in deceptively simple matters. It is a very relationally-driven plot, and I adored the cardigan-sweater comfort of Billy’s relationships with his parents and the loving commitment of his teacher.
I have to say, it is a pleasure to meet a believable, yet really nice boy and a great dad, in this book. Billy is not angelic, but he is a good kid, and he happily identifies as being a good kid. He aims to please. He shrinks back from hurting people’s feelings. He gets really angry when his little sister wrecks his stuff, but he does not slug her. He does not say snarky things. It’s a boy’s story, but it doesn’t rely on boogers for humor. Billy’s dad is a stay-at-home dad, an artist who works out of his garage, and an exceptional father. His relationships with his wife and children are dear. I love all that about this book.
There’s a lot more I could say about Henkes’ precise crafting of sharp, clear sentences that read like a mellow day, the winsome humor, the incorporation of the arts in the plot, the quietly believable dialogue…but I better leave some gems for you to discover!
It’s over 200 pages, but written so a strong reader can take pride in tackling this thick book by about a third grade level. It would also make a captivating read-aloud for kids as young as 5. Parents and teachers — this is for you, too, and you’ll feel immensely cheered about the difference your words make in a child’s life. Highly recommended!