Study Guide

The Year of Billy Miller Themes

  • Family

    When it comes to the Millers, family is pretty much the best thing ever. Mama, Papa, Billy, and Sal are four super dedicated folks who seriously love each other. Sure, there are some rough patches, like when Sal bugs her big bro like whoa or when Billy can't stand his little sis's crying. But overall, this family is filled with laughter, fun, and even a cello with mannequin arms (true story), and they stick together from the first page of The Year of Billy Miller to the last. So that leaves one big question: What's the secret ingredient that makes this family so strong?

    Questions About Family

    1. What types of families are portrayed in The Year of Billy Miller? Do all of the families look alike? How are they different?
    2. Does family ever hold a character back? How so? And is this a good thing or a bad thing?
    3. How are sibling relationships different from parent relationships in this book? And how are they similar?

    Chew on This

    Family makes life easy. When it comes to the Millers, they are a smooth-sailing ship and even the rough patches can't mess things up.

    Family makes life harder. When the Millers hit some tough spots, they have seriously negative effects on the family bond.

  • Education

    Gear up for a rollercoaster ride, Shmoopers, because that's what school is like for Billy in The Year of Billy Miller. One day he's nervous as all get-out because of the lump on his head, and the next he's happy as a clam playing with his friends. Then our guy is feeling confident and awesome… until he's feeling tired and bored.

    Yep, Billy feels all the feelings when it comes to his second-grade education, and he's got a lot of homework and new challenging lessons (hello poetry-writing) to boot, which means he's constantly facing new challenges. Good thing Billy has a bunch of good teachers to help make second grade go from a scary place to the best year yet.

    Questions About Education

    1. What makes school a positive experience for Billy? And how is it a negative one? Is school overall more of a good thing or a bad thing?
    2. How do teachers make an impact on Billy's education? And which folks serve as teachers in this book?
    3. How does Billy grow thanks to his second-grade year? Does education change the way he looks at his identity?

    Chew on This

    School is the pits. For Billy, school is a lot of hard work no matter how you slice it, and that stinks.

    School is the best. For Billy, school is fun no matter what, so it's a pretty cool place to be.

  • Identity

    When Billy Miller looks in the mirror, what do you think he sees? The Year of Billy Miller is about Billy Miller figuring out who exactly he is now that he's in second grade, which means we find Billy thinking about his identity an awful lot in this book. Sometimes all this has Billy realizing that he can change, but other times Billy feels like his identity just is what it is, and that's that. Whichever road this dude takes, there's one thing that's for sure: He makes some pretty major discoveries about himself along the way.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How does Billy define himself? What about the other characters? Do all the characters think about their identities?
    2. How are identities impacted by the rest of the society? Can family and friends impact Billy's identity? And can identities in this book ever be completely independent?
    3. What happens when someone's identity shifts in this book? Are these changes a good thing or a bad thing?

    Chew on This

    Identity is solid as stone. In The Year of Billy Miller, Billy keeps his identity on the straight and narrow, making sure he never changes.

    Identity is as fluid as the sea. In The Year of Billy Miller, Billy's sense of self changes a ton with each new experience he has.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    We'll level with you: Compassion doesn't always come easily for Billy in The Year of Billy Miller. And there are a few folks who push his buttons like nobody's business (we're looking at you Emma and Sal). Plus, there're accidental slip-ups, like when he's teasing Emma but it looks like he's poking fun at Ms. Silver. In short, Billy has plenty of potholes to work around on his road to being a more compassionate guy, and in the end he makes some serious progress. We're not saying the road is easy, but Billy ultimately finds that being nice might just be the best option around.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. What does compassion look like in this book? What traits do the kind characters exhibit?
    2. Are there any characters that show no compassion whatsoever? What motivates these characters to be mean? And what motivates the nice characters toward kindness?
    3. Is it always good to be a kind person in The Year of Billy Miller? What are the positives? And what are the negatives to being compassionate?

    Chew on This

    Compassion equals strength. Billy becomes Mr. Kindness by the end of second grade, and that makes him a seriously strong dude.

    Compassion equals weakness. Billy might become a nicer guy over the course of the year, but he becomes a wimp, too.

  • Time

    A year can mean lots of different things, and in The Year of Billy Miller, we're operating on the school calendar, covering fall through spring with a nice summer vacation in between. Oh, and there's also the Chinese New Year calendar in this book, which revolves around something else entirely: the moon. No matter how we choose to measure time, though, in this book lots can change as it marches on.

    Questions About Time

    1. How are the seasons represented? Are the passing seasons portrayed positively or negatively? How so?
    2. What changes over time in The Year of Billy Miller? And what stays the same?
    3. Why does the idea of years matter so much in this book? Are there other ways of measuring time that crop up in this story?

    Chew on This

    Changes, changes—in this book, everything changes for the better over time.

    Changes, shmanges—in this book, everything changes over time, but some of those changes have Billy down in the dumps.

  • Art and Culture

    Here's the situation: Art is cool, but it's also lots of work. And in The Year of Billy Miller, we have multiple characters realizing just how tough making art can be. Let's take a look at Papa: He's a seriously creative guy, but he still has to put in a ton of work to find inspiration for creating new funky pieces of art. Sure, he ends up being pretty successful, but that doesn't mean it's an easy task. And if you ask us, Billy isn't finding art inspiration any easier to come by. Whether it's his diorama project or his poem for Mama, making art can be a real uphill climb.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. What counts as art in this book? Are there certain things that don't count? Are there strict rules for art, or is it a free-for-all? How so?
    2. What motivates Billy to be good at art? Is there anything holding him back?
    3. How is art an individual task in this book? Or is it a communal activity? How so?
    4. Are certain characters more artistic than others? Do any characters completely lack creativity?

    Chew on This

    In this book, art is all about self-expression and that means it should be a solo activity whenever possible.

    In this book, art requires other people. It's impossible to be super creative alone, so it's all about coming together.

  • Coming of Age

    Most of the time, Billy wants to grow up. Pronto. And for him growing up is about not acting like a little kid anymore. In fact, one of Billy's biggest worries is that folks will think he's acting like a baby. So when Emma makes fun of him for being immature, it seriously gets him down, and when he feels scared and childish, our main man would rather hide this than share it.

    But Billy's not the only one who wants to grow up in The Year of Billy Miller, and his little sis is raring to become a big kid as fast as she can. The challenge for these two, then, is figuring out how they can start acting more grownup without actually jumping ahead in time.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. How do the characters define growing up? Do they all agree on the same definition, or do different characters think of growing up in distinct ways? How so?
    2. Is growing up a positive experience or a negative one? And what makes it so good or so bad?
    3. Are there any characters that don't come of age at all? What holds these characters back?
    4. What motivates Billy to grow up? Is there anything motivating him to stay the same?

    Chew on This

    Coming of age is inevitable. Billy would have grown up no matter what, so it's no big deal.

    Coming of age is a choice, and for Billy, growing up means making decisions that are more mature.

  • Perseverance

    The Year of Billy Miller is chock-full of hard workers. Yep, we've got a book where our characters can persevere through their rough patches. So when Billy hits a roadblock when he's writing his poem, he pushes right on through, and when Papa can't find inspiration for his art, he just keeps on chugging. Even Sal works hard at reading, plus we've got some hard-working role models in Mama and Ms. Silver, to boot. In fact, we have a tough time finding any characters that don't persevere through their struggles in this tale.

    But that doesn't mean the struggles are easy to get through. And it sure doesn't mean that the characters always reach their goals exactly like they'd predicted. But them's the breaks when it comes to perseverance.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. What motivates the characters in The Year of Billy Miller to persevere? Is there anything that makes them feel like giving up?
    2. Which characters work the hardest? Are there any slackers in this book? What's the difference between the characters who persevere and the ones who don't?
    3. Does trying hard always pay off in this book? When do you think perseverance helps the characters meet their goals? And when is working hard just not enough?

    Chew on This

    Working hard won't get you anywhere. Billy works hard but never truly meets his goals so it's not really worth it.

    Working hard is tough but totally valuable. Billy faces tons of rough patches, but he perseveres through each and always emerges a bit better for having done so.