I was pretty curious about The Year of Billy Miller because I’ve long been a fan of Kevin Henkes’s picture books and because I don’t see very many boo...moreI was pretty curious about The Year of Billy Miller because I’ve long been a fan of Kevin Henkes’s picture books and because I don’t see very many books written about or for children of this age (second grade). On the whole, I found the novel to be a really warm, gentle, and satisfying read.
The Year of Billy Miller follows Billy for a year. Billy is a little insecure going into the second grade because he hit his head pretty hard during his summer vacation and doesn’t know if there will be any negative effects. Billy, it is soon clear, though, is a hardworking and warm-hearted kid who wants to please, and not much is going to hold him back.
Even though the motif of a “year” recurs throughout the novel, really the book is structured around the key relationships in his life. The novel focuses on how Billy grows, and especially in his appreciation for his teacher, his father, his little sister, and his mother. The events of the novel are certainly not high drama—he tries to make the teacher like him after he thinks he’s offended her, he tries to stay up all night with his sister’s help, he tries to write a poem for class, etc. These events are, however, all amusing and human moments that highlight the charms of Billy and the people around him.
Really, the simplicity of the novel is what I enjoyed most about it. The Year of Billy Miller is a little tribute to a good kid with a good family and what a good life they have together. It’s a total pleasure to read. (less)
**spoiler alert** I was very excited to read Flora & Ulysses once I head that it had won the Newbery Medal for the past year. I’ve read multiple n...more**spoiler alert** I was very excited to read Flora & Ulysses once I head that it had won the Newbery Medal for the past year. I’ve read multiple novels by Kate DiCamillo, and though I have often wondered if her books aren’t written more for adults than for children, I (being an adult) have enjoyed them thoroughly. Plus, the premise of Flora & Ulysses seemed as though it would add a nice flavor of playfulness to DiCamillo’s writing.
Sadly, though, I was pretty disappointed by the novel. Several things just didn’t work for me. Mainly, the novel just seemed underdeveloped in multiple ways. First, the characters are underdeveloped. Flora’s mom spends a part of the novel as the villainous, but no explanation is ever offered for her absurd and over-the-top behavior, and not explanation is offered for why she decides to change. Flora’s dad, meanwhile, is an important character who is given little backstory or little personality. He’s just there, a paper thin character on the page. Flora, meanwhile, is clearly supposed to be following the trajectory of a cynic who learns to trust, but she never for a moment in the novel is an actual cynic. She thinks the squirrel must be a superhero from the first moment!
Meanwhile, the plot is too episodic. A plot line will be offered (i.e. learning to be a listener), only to be abandoned, or a plot line will be important but incredulous (i.e. why is the mom so crazy?). There is so much going on that the plot seems choppy, uneven, and almost dull. Thematically, too, the book is a jumble.
The book certainly has its moments. I loved the “Pascal’s Wager” moment, and the illustrations are authentically cute. I had trouble motivating myself to read this through to the end, though. The novel was both too much (too quirky, too many characters, too many chapters) and too little (too little characterization, too little conflict). I wish that one of this year’s other very worthy books had won the big prize instead. (less)
I read Richard Kleist's graphic novel biography of Johnny Cash this last week. I was inspired to read the book after looking through Richard Beck’s th...moreI read Richard Kleist's graphic novel biography of Johnny Cash this last week. I was inspired to read the book after looking through Richard Beck’s theological overview of Cash’s work over at his blog Experimental Theology (highly recommended). This was a lyrical, albeit brief, biography that uses both the text and the art of the graphic novel form to capture the chiaroscuro that defined Johnny Cash's life. I think it makes a great introduction to Cash’s work and life--especially for adolescent readers. (less)
This was my second attempt at reading a John Green novel, and just as with Looking for Alaska, I found myself a little disappointed. My expectations w...moreThis was my second attempt at reading a John Green novel, and just as with Looking for Alaska, I found myself a little disappointed. My expectations were possibly a little high, or at least incorrect. I came to the book hearing that “it was not another cancer novel.” By this, I expected it not to be A Walk to Remember…in other words, not to be overly melodramatic and mawkish, to be generally more honest.
There were several problems to me with the book. The first is that I’m not sure how the book could have been more melodramatic and mawkish. It is a roller coaster of emotions--trying to jar you back and forth just about as violently as it can. I think that the author thought that some occasional outbursts of cynicism and despair would cover over the uber-sentimentality of the novel, but I think that just added to it. The second is that the characters are often, frankly, childish and even sometimes mean. I guess that such should be expected--they are teens after all who live in difficult circumstances and so have a right to act selfish and moody. But at the same time, the tantrums and fits these characters display seems so at odds with the extra- extra- extraordinariness in everything else that they do. I know that a standard critique of the novel is that the characters seem too old for their years (how many 15 year olds can start reciting “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”), but that didn’t bother me as much as how they are not more consistently mature for their age.
Third, it seemed like an oddly paced book. There’s a big twist to the novel, and once it happens, everything is very, very quick to the end. I felt somewhat cheated that the development that went into the beginning of the novel, up through the trip to Amsterdam, did not carry on to the end of the book. I will say that my high school students, even though they tend to love the novel, also tend to agree with me on this point.
Overall, I found this an occasionally entertaining book, a teen melodrama that’s not as different from A Walk to Remember as you’d expect.(less)
**spoiler alert** I decided to read Looking for Alaska because my students (high school sophomores) loooove it. At pretty well any point in the school...more**spoiler alert** I decided to read Looking for Alaska because my students (high school sophomores) loooove it. At pretty well any point in the school year, I have five students reading it, and so decided that it was time that I knew what was going on. I perhaps came onto the novel with overly high expectations, and I’m obviously not the author’s target audience. I’ll admit, though, that I was slightly underwhelmed.
As I said before, I recognize that I’m not the author’s target audience, and all of my objections to the book probably stem from that. First of all, I definitely had a been-there-read-that feeling. The basic plot is about a socially awkward, brooding male who goes to a new school, is taken under the wing by some wilder and more charismatic friends (lead by an impossibly gorgeous, charismatic, and brilliant female love interest). Some great times and something awful happen during the year, but he learns ends up more confident and more willing to live life to the fullest. It’s a pattern that comes up over and over again--in fact one that I sort of enjoyed when I was in high school and read The Perks of Being a Wallflower--and I was disappointed once I was introduced to the main characters and could basically tell what was going to happen over the course of the novel.
Second, there’s obviously going to be some teen drama in a young adult novel, but this one was, at times, over the top. At one point, a student racked by grief walks eighty-four miles in a little over twenty-four hours, and the other characters sort of act as though that’s just what one does when you’re sad.
I could see, to some degree, why the students are drawn to the book. These character have a large measure of freedom, are larger than life, and there is certainly some suspense--with Green’s device of counting down the days to...something. Plus, of course, they’ve not necessarily read this basic plot before. I think I’ll still give The Fault in Our Stars a chance, but I’ll going into it with my expectations a little lower.(less)
Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska has always seemed to be one of the least popular Newbery Winners, and so I’ve not been in a rush to read it. I...moreShadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska has always seemed to be one of the least popular Newbery Winners, and so I’ve not been in a rush to read it. I enjoyed the book thoroughly, though, finding it to be a satisfying and meaningful story.
Shadow of a Bull is about Manolo. Manolo’s father was the greatest bullfighter in Spain, though he died tragically young. His whole community expects Manolo, as he reaches the age of twelve, to step into his father’s shoes and fight a bull. Manolo, however, is not so sure that he has the bravery to fulfill what is supposed to be his destiny.
The novel is well-told. I thought that it has a compelling complication, interesting characters, and a satisfying conclusion. Moreover, I liked that Wojciechowska refrains from passing judgment on bullfighting itself, but gives a fine overview of the culture and allows the reader, along with Manolo, to make his or her own decisions. I also just really enjoyed Manolo’s development, as he struggles with questions of responsibility, identity, destiny, and bravery. (less)
On the other hand, the book does feature some pretty fantastic art, and it has some really charming moments, such as when the boy leaves the mean but...moreOn the other hand, the book does feature some pretty fantastic art, and it has some really charming moments, such as when the boy leaves the mean but vain rhino brushing his horn. It’s also, most importantly, not written for adults like me. It’s really shot toward readers who are just emerging into chapter books, and as such, it’s ok that it’s a little nonsensical and very repetitive.
So, I think it’s a fine little book. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I’d expected, but I probably had the wrong expectations going into it. My Father’s Dragon is a very fine book for its audience. (less)