CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Among children's literature enthusiasts, Kevin Henkes is a rock star. Author of more than 30 books, winner of a Caldecott, a Caldecott honor and a Newbery honor, Henkes consistently knocks it out of the park when it comes to depicting the inner emotional life of a child.
Readers are probably most familiar with Henkes's work through his Mouse books, including the perennial favorite, "Lily's Purple Plastic Purse."
His latest novel, "The Year of Billy Miller," has been one of the most eagerly-anticipated children's books of 2013.
In his new novel, Henkes writes about a second grader named Billy Miller, who suffers a fall while on vacation with his parents and his sister two weeks before school starts. While the doctor congratulates Billy on having fallen "just the right way" to escape serious injury, Billy later overhears his mother expressing concern that he may start forgetting things or acting confused. Billy worries that he won't be smart enough for second grade, though his father assures him that second grade will be "the Year of Billy Miller."
At school, Billy gets off on the wrong foot with his teacher and has a run-in with a smart-alecky girl named Emma Sparks. Yet, despite these missteps, Billy finds the courage to meet the challenges of second grade.
There are so many memorable moments, as when Billy helps his father with his art, when he shares a treasured marble with his sister Sal and when he wrestles with the choice of which parent to write a poem about for the school show. How can he keep from hurting the feelings of the parent whom he doesn't choose? Henkes demonstrates his understanding of how the smallest reversals or victories may become magnified in the mind and heart of a child.
The text is illustrated with spot drawings, which add to the gentle and intimate tone of the text. Divided into four sections titled "Teacher," "Father," "Sister," "Mother," Henkes subtly moves the story through the school year.
While 229 pages may seem long for this audience, the writing is so clean and the four chapters are so neatly constructed, the book flows effortlessly and would make a great read-aloud at home or in school. Fans of Beverly Cleary's Ramona books will be especially drawn to Billy Miller as, like Cleary, Henkes manages to capture the traumas of everyday life from the perspective of a second grader.
While books with spunky female protagonists abound, (think Clementine and Judy Moody), it is rare to find a gem of a novel aimed at the same age group, in which the protagonist is a boy. "The Year of Billy Miller" is precisely that.
Sarah Sullivan of Charleston is the author of "Passing The Music Down" and "All That's Missing." She holds an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College and can be reached through her website at www.sarahsullivanbooks.com