When it comes to tone, our narrator is pretty relaxed. And we get the story in a straightforward way thanks to this informal and down-to-earth attitude. Yep, this storyteller is a straight shooter so we learn what's going down without much judgment from the narrator.
So if you want to find out how Billy, Ned, and Sal approach their art projects, just look to the narrator's matter-of-fact description and you'll have the answer:
Papa had thrown together some odds and ends from the garage that he thought might prove useful. Ned had brought two plastic sharks and some seashells from a Florida vacation to use for his diorama. And Sal had asked Papa if she could please, please, please use glitter, which was kept in a secret hiding place out of her reach. (2.2.1)
We learn exactly what each character wants and needs and that's that. Did you notice how the narrator keeps it casual here? He or she doesn't use a formal tone to list out the materials, but instead keeps it nice and light when talking about those "odds and ends."
In fact, sometimes the narrator adds a healthy dose of joy to his or her casual attitude. For instance, when he or she mimics how Sal begs Papa by saying "please, please, please," we can't help but smirk a little. And that makes this matter-of-fact tone both informal and lighthearted all at once. Good, straight-to-the-point times.
When you've got a book about a mom, dad, son, and daughter, you've got yourself a family drama. Now when it comes to the Millers, drama takes its own special form. It's not about throwing punches or running away here—nope, it's more about making sure everyone gets along well and makes the others proud. We can't lie: These Millers sure do care a lot about each other.
In fact, this is such a lovey family that it can actually be a really happy book. And even a funny book sometimes. So that puts this story in the comedy genre. Sure, there are some sad moments for Billy and his family, and we can think of at least one character (ahem, Sal) who sheds a few tears, but overall this book has happiness on almost every page, plus a seriously triumphant finish. Huzzah—optimism wins.
By the end of the book our main man Billy is a whole year older. He's grown up during all his happy times (and the rougher patches, too). And that makes this a coming-of-age novel. Typically, coming-of-age stories follow a character until they become an adult and that sure doesn't happen for Billy—heck, he only finishes second grade—so The Year of Billy Miller is more like playing with the coming-of-age genre, then completely embodying it. Let's call this one coming-of-age elementary-school-style.
So we've got a hunch that this title—The Year of Billy Miller—has something to do with this kid named Billy Miller. And we're right on the money.
But even though the title might seem obvious, it's actually got some more complicated origins inside the book. The phrase the year of Billy Miller is something Papa says first, when he's trying to encourage his son to have a great year in second grade:
"Ms. Silver and the great nation of China might think that this is the Year of the Rabbit," said Papa. "But I know—and I know everything—that this is the year of Billy Miller." (1.1.37)
And Billy takes these words to heart. He even repeats the phrase a couple of times himself.
Since Papa's phrase is all about Billy making this year an important one for himself, we're thinking the title has to do with our main man's growth. And his self-confidence. Plus, as he grows up, he gets to know himself even better. And the title gives us a big clue that this book is going to be all about this fun process of self-discovery.
This is the kind of book that comes full circle. Here's what we mean: The title of the book is The Year of Billy Miller. And the first time anyone says this phrase is when Billy's dad tells him that he's going to have a great year in second grade because "this is the year of Billy Miller" (1.1.37). By the end of the book, this phrase has become a mantra Billy says to himself. In fact, in the last sentence of the book, he makes it a special declaration:
And then, because he felt so good, and because he could not stop himself, he leaned into the silent microphone and exclaimed in a voice meant just for Mama, "This is the Year of Billy Miller." (4.5.76)
Billy has just finished his poetry show and he's on cloud nine. Not only was he able to recite his poem from memory on the second go-around, but he created a special moment for his mom as well. He's feels so great that he can hardly contain himself.
So based on these details, we know that this ending is already moving in a happy direction. And when Billy says that this is his year, he's showing us just how much he's grown since his early fears of second grade. It looks like this really was the year of Billy Miller, and that makes the ending even happier.
We don't hear much about where this book takes place: Constant, Wisconsin. It's a made-up city, so don't try looking for it on a Wisconsin map, but even though it's fictional, it still feels realistic. It's as if Billy and his family live in a middle-class American town that could stand-in for almost any other middle-class town in the country. All we know is that there's a home where they live, some schools where they learn and work, and that's about it.
The good news is we do get to learn a bit more about the two spots where most of this story takes place: Billy's house and Billy's school.
Here's the funny thing: We get almost no description of the Miller home. So we have to be setting detectives to figure anything out. We know that there's a kitchen, because they do lots of cooking and eating together. And we know that there are other typical rooms, like Billy and Sal's bedrooms or the living room. See what we mean about this home being a stand-in for your traditional middle-class American family house?
But there's one place in the house that really sets this home apart. Yep, it's the garage.
You see, the Millers' garage is where Papa has his art studio, and that means it's a place where cool things happen, like when Billy goes into the garage to find this:
Before them stood the broken-down cello Papa had found at the dump. He'd attached four store-mannequin arms to the cello, two on each side. (2.1.23)
Oh yes, Billy lives in a house where you might find musical instruments with fake human body parts in the garage. So the rest of the house might seem run-of-the mill, but we've got a feeling that cellos with limbs aren't in just any old garage these days. The Millers' garage lets us know that this family definitely has a creative side, and that they're more unique than meets the eye.
In some ways, Billy's classroom (Room 2) is a fairly normal set-up: "There were six tables with four chairs each arranged around the room" (1.3.3), plus there are a bunch of nametags for the students. Overall, the whole shebang sounds pretty standard to us. But this classroom is also unique because it's got a snazzy combo of creativity and organization.
On the creativity side of things, there's a ton of art going on in this setting. So we often find painting, drawing, diorama-sharing, and poetry-writing happening around these parts.
But on the other hand, Room 2 is also pretty stinking organized. And that's all thanks to Ms. Silver. Oh, and her gong:
All of a sudden, there was a noise like a single, penetrating toll of a bell. The laughter quieted. Silence, except for the resonant sound. […]
Billy had never known a teacher with a gong. It had worked like magic—the room was noiseless, still. (1.3.16, 18)
Ms. Silver sure knows how to keep her class in order. Her gong takes all that creativity and all those second-grade giggles and gives them some structure. Plus she's not afraid to use the gong on parents at the end-of-the-year show, too. Ha. The gong definitely reminds us that this setting is a place where Ms. Silver might be fun, but she also means business.
Here's the good news: This book is easy as pie. We've got simple sentences and a zippy story so the pages fly by. Here's the even better news: This book is also pretty fun. Sure, second grade might not sound like the most challenging time, but for Billy Miller it's jam-packed with little adventures. So sit back and enjoy.
In this book, we get a seriously simple writing style. The narration gives us short sentences that pack a punch. But just because these sentences are short and to the point, don't go thinking that they're flimsy. Nope, this writing style is packed full of details, too.
Check out the simple yet detailed style and how it gets us involved in Billy's diorama-building project:
At first, Papa seems jolly and had good suggestions to offer. He showed Billy how to replicate a cave by crumpling up a case of gray construction paper, then smoothing it out and gluing it to the inside of the box. Because the paper was crisscrossed folds and wrinkles, it really gave the shoe box the appearance of worn, silvery rock. […]
Billy cut several bats out of black construction paper. He worked quickly. The sleeping, hanging bats were fairly easy to make. Essentially they were black ovals with tabs on one end. Billy folded the tabs and taped them to the inside top of the shoe box. (2.2.2, 4)
Just take a look at all those deets. It's basically a step-by-step guide for making a bat cave diorama. Were you hoping to learn how to make the walls of the shoebox look like cave rock? Well the narrator's style has got you covered with his construction paper description. Or perhaps you're in the market for some hanging bats? The narrator's got those handy details in the bag, too.
So hand Billy a situation and the narrator is going to give us the who, what, when, where, how—gosh, even the smell if it comes to that. And that's what makes this simple, detailed style so easy to get into.
Were you as bummed as we were when Sal dumped glitter into Billy's bat cave diorama? And were you as relieved as us when Papa came up with a creative solution? Seriously, that glitter becomes a pretty big deal.
So here's how it goes: When Sal first adds glitter to her big bro's diorama, she thinks she's giving him the best fairy magic in the world. And who can blame her? But Billy thinks the glitter is the worst thing to happen to him since that lump on his head.
Happily, Billy is able to turn his frown upside-down with a wee bit of help from his dad. Yep, his creative pops says that glitter actually makes the bat cave even cooler because now it looks like it's filled with mica, which is a real mineral. So problem solved.
With his big turnaround, Billy's attitude about glitter in his diorama goes from this:
"She ruined my diorama. There's glitter everywhere. It's sticking to my bats and it's all over my cave. It looks like a girl made it." (2.3.43)
When it was his turn, Billy shook his diorama to demonstrate how his bat could fly, and he described his habitat, explaining how he'd used glitter to look like mica. He didn't mention Sal or fairies. He tried to remember Papa's words. He said, "Mica sparkles like jewels. It is a mineral in caves. It's like glitter." (2.4.2)
Oh yes, that's Billy proudly telling his classmates about glitter because he realizes that it's awesome. Can you hear the confidence in Billy's voice? He explains every detail just like his dad, and nails that presentation. All thanks to glitter.
So the glitter lets us know that it's possible for a situation to go from sour to sweet if we just change our attitude. What else do you think the glitter might symbolize?
There are some random objects lurking around Papa's garage studio. Yep, we're talking about those "treasures" (1.4.26) that he collects from anywhere and everywhere to turn into art. And they're sprinkled all over the book, too. Here are the treasures that stood out to us:
Are there other treasures that crop up for you? Go ahead and add them to the list.
Now let's get the real scoop about these treasures. Honestly, most of them come from the dump. But when Papa looks at them, he doesn't see trash. Nope—instead he sees possibilities for creating seriously cool pieces of art. And he wants to get Billy in on the creative fun:
"Does any of this speak to you?" Papa asked. He rotated the driftwood in his hands, eyeing it critically. "Any ideas how your old Papa can turn these lovely bits of rummage into art?" (1.4.32)
Instead of calling his objects garbage, Papa sees these pieces as "lovely," which lets us know that he's an inventive chap. It's also a good reminder that imagination is key. See, when Papa studies his treasures, he's looking for ideas and inspiration, ways to take old pieces and use them in brand spanking new ways. This is all possible thanks to imagination, with a bit of patience thrown in for good measure.
Plus, Papa gets Billy involved in the fantastical fun. We'd venture a guess that Billy's little silver treasures for Ms. S might've even been inspired by his dad's art—he's learning how to put objects together in new and funky ways. And that's inspiring.
So the treasures teach us about inspiration and imagination. What else might they represent?
No need to hunt for the perfect good luck charm because Billy has found it: the pearl. He got this little nugget from Ms. Silver because it's the Year of the Dragon, and according to Chinese tradition, the dragon is associated with a pearl. So now Billy has this awesome pearl that he gets to hang onto. Oh, and he gets to make his sister super envious of it.
So since Sal loves the pearl so much, it actually becomes super important in her and Billy's relationship. And that can be a bad thing and a good thing all at once.
On the one hand, the pearl reminds us that Billy knows he's older than his little sis so he can trick her into helping him out. Plus, she thinks the pearl is magic and he knows it's not. So when Billy wants Sal to stay up all night with him, he uses the pearl as little sister bait:
He kept holding up the pearl as if it were a priceless gem, turning it between his fingers, hypnotizing her with it. (3.4.14)
It looks like Billy has taken up a side job as a sorcerer. He knows that Sal loves the pearl so he's treating it as if the pearl gives him magical powers to control his sister. And boy is he taking full advantage. Check out how we're told he's "hypnotizing" Sal, as if she almost has no choice but do his bidding. Tsk tsk, Billy Miller. That's some serious manipulation.
So even though Billy uses the pearl to exploit his little sis's jealousy, he also uses it for good. In fact, after Sal tries to help Billy stay up all night, he turns the pearl into a seriously thoughtful gift:
Billy's forehead wrinkled in thought. These were the things he was thinking: I don't really care about the pearl. Sal helped me last night—but I can't tell her that. If I give her the pearl, it would be a way to thank her without having to say anything. (3.5.35)
Nice gesture, right? He and Sal didn't even meet their goal of pulling an all-nighter and he still wants to reward his little sister. Plus, not only does this pearl create a super tight bond between these siblings, but it also shows us that they have a special way of communicating. No need for words here, because they have a snazzy pearl instead.
So the pearl is about both manipulating his sis a bit, and forming a bond with her. Not too shabby for a shiny little thing.
Names are super important in this book. Don't believe us? Just ask Emma. When she introduces herself and says her nickname is Emster, Billy thinks she says Hamster, which does not make this girl a happy camper.
Or take a look at Mr. Miller. He goes from being Papa to Dad, all because Billy wants to sound more grown up.
For each of our characters, names have a ton to do with identity. (More on identity over in the "Themes" section is you want to dig deep with this idea.) Sometimes a name might change the way a character thinks about themselves—and we're guessing Emma might not like the idea of thinking of herself as Hamster.
According to Papa, since names are all about someone's identity, that means they can change over time as people change. He explains:
"Maybe one day you'll want to be called something else."
Billy tilted his head. "Huh?"
"Maybe one day you'll want us to call you Bill. Or William."
"No," said Billy. "I'm Billy. Promise to always call me Billy." (2.4.36-39)
Did you notice how unsure Billy is about going by a new name? He thinks it's never going to happen. As in never ever. But Papa figures that Billy might choose to go by a different name one day. And even though that sounds like crazy talk to our head honcho, Papa just might be onto something. He realizes that Billy may look at himself differently in the future, and that might mean going by a different name, just like Billy wants to start calling his papa Dad now that he's in second grade.
So in short, names tell us a lot about a character's identity, and also whether they're willing to let that identity change or not.
In this book, we're inside Billy's head. But it's not because he's our narrator. Nope, we've got a third-person storyteller who just happens to like sticking to Billy's point of view. So even though the narrator isn't the same person as Billy, he or she still tells us only what our guy can see or hear or think or feel.
What makes this perspective great is that we get to hear about Billy's experiences. Just take a look at how Billy can't stay away while trying to pull his all-nighter:
He would give it one more try. He raised his head and opened his eyes as wide as he could.
"Stay awake," he commanded himself.
A swift, invisible hand pressed his head down and stitched his eyes shut. He tried to conjure up an image of the monster under his bed, but he didn't even have the energy for that. (3.4.54-56)
Billy himself might not have energy for imagining monsters or even telling us his story, but never fear, because the limited omniscient point of view is ready to give us the full scoop. And that means we get to be inside Billy's head as he struggles to stay awake (and when he fails, too). Yep, we're with him every step of the way.
Poor Billy Miller's got a lump on his head. Yep, this kid fell during summer vacation and now he's got to start second grade with a special extra bump. But he doesn't feel extra special. Nope, instead Billy Miller is nervous to start school, and extra nervous that the bump on his head means he won't be smart enough to hack it in Ms. Silver's class.
As school gets underway, Billy starts to get his footing. Sure, there are some bumps in the road (better than his head though, right?), like when he gets into it with the class know-it-all or when his sister almost ruins his school art project. With each twist and turn that Billy dodges, we can see his path getting more and complicated. And that's how we know that there's now more conflict afoot in this tale.
If you're in search for a single climax, it might be tough to find. Billy has a handful of important moments that help him grow into a seriously strong second grader. And there are two that stand out to us: (1) when he decides to give his sister his pearl and write her his special dragon-stamped letter, and (2) when he finally jots down his poem for his mom. Each time, we see Billy turn a corner and those big changes indicate some important turning points for our protagonist.
After Billy has written his poem, he's got one job: practice, practice, and practice some more. But even as he practices, Billy isn't as worried as he was when the story opened. In fact, things have kind of evened out for him. So as the school year winds down, so does this tale, and that means the ending is coming soon.
At the end of the school year, Billy has his poetry show and he does pretty well. Yeah, he doesn't recite the poem by memory in front of everyone, but he does later, and it's only for his mom to see, which makes it extra special. In fact, it's so special that the ending of this book also feels like another climax. It's almost as if one of the biggest moments for Billy happens at the very tail end of the book.