“I cried so much, I’m washed enough.” (or, The Genius of Kevin Henkes)

billy miller

I spend a lot of time with a 6 year old boy, which is to say that I spend a lot of time tripping over forts improbably made out of board game boxes and empty toilet paper rolls. I don’t ever get used to it either. I’ve written about the tiny little pieces of things that send me over the edge sometimes, and I picture myself making good on all those promises to throw it all away or better yet, give it all away to a deserving, imaginary child who will take good care of these things, sorting it all into tidy boxes at the end of each day.

And I notice right away when a space is absent of boys. I might walk into the home of a person who has two girls or even four girls (four!), and maybe there is noise, maybe there is a karaoke microphone set up and Taylor Swift songs screeching into the quiet, and maybe it smells a little like cheap nail polish and the inside of crayon box. But I never trip over anything. I don’t step on a stray lego piece on my way to the kitchen. I don’t sit down on the sofa and, like the princess and the pea, feel the need to dig my hand into the crevices and pull out a matchbox car or a flashlight.  There are no ottomans turned over, no shoe boxes with holes ripped out of them so that the poor stuffed animal inside can breathe.

Six year old boys are special—maddeningly creative, smart, intuitive. They are builders and designers, ball throwers and questions askers.  And sometimes they read, but mostly they need to be read to. Sometimes zombie stories and the diaries of forlorn little brothers. But most times, Frog and Toad and Stuart Little and a little Amelia Bedelia just so they can feel especially in the know before they fall asleep at night.

But what has become of books for this age group, for this type of enterprising, wheels-churning kid? Where to go after Encyclopedia Brown and the Boxcar Children have solved their last case?

I know.

Read The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes. Read it every night, with the lights low and while your little boy, who is maybe emotional but definitely not dramatic listens to every single word of a book so quiet and so memorable, your voice cracks when you read it out loud.

Billy is the rarest of characters. He is a very real reflection of the kind of boy I live with—the one with all the fort ideas. The one who pays very close attention when I explain something. The one whose fears are quiet and small, and hidden easily behind little shrugs and deep breaths.

Billy is scared the way kids this age are scared—not of monsters and lightning, but of not being smart enough, of not being able to handle second grade or the sassy girl at his table. Scared of hurting someone else’s feelings, too. And the kicker here is that he summons the courage to do some very challenging things all by himself in that internal way that boys do things, even as he challenges others—to a stay-up-all-night sleepover or to a new way of looking at art.

And then—ahem—there is chapter three in the section called Mother. And I can’t write about it or even think about it without feeling so grateful for it, for the portrayal of a mother so complicated and capable and a boy so very interested in her. To find the courage as a writer to tell the real story of how little boys and their mothers share moments, private and important and damp with night air but no tears. Well, this chapter is what makes this writer so special to me. This book is what makes him great.

What Henkes is so brilliant at here is showing how eventually those tiny little pieces of boyhood get picked up and clicked back together and they become the building blocks of little men. Little men who use big voices and who want to do well every day, and who—in between building volcanoes and making mudballs—are mindful of others. Little men whose bravery reduces the voices of the mothers who read to them in the low lights at night to small, cracking whispers.

Ultimately, The Year of Billy Miller is a family portrait. A smart and funny and charming look at the average American family. But if you look closely, you will also see what you look like on a bad day, and later on in the best possible light. And you will see your children dragging sacks of weird things down the stairs and making each other laugh. And you will see the disappointments and the triumphs of each day you spend trying to do better. You will see yourself in here and I suspect you will return to it time and again because it feels good and because you love it, and the best part is that your kids will love it to. Because it is a portrait of them and when you get down to it, what kid doesn’t like to stare at themselves making faces in the mirror?

Whatever would they do without us? (More than you might think!)

A friend recently told me that she went to a bookstore looking for something new to read to her daughter. The bookseller made some age-appropriate suggestions, like –(and I know I write this a lot—it’s an epidemic)—Rainbow Fairies. My friend was not so impressed and pushed back. How about The Boxcar Children?  She wondered out loud.

The bookseller shook her head no. “Those kids have no parents.”

Though I was the very person who made this recommendation to my friend, I tried not to take personal offense to this reaction. Why did I think this book was okay and this trustworthy bookseller did not? Was it my own nostalgia for The Boxcar Children? Definitely. But it was something else, too. Yes these kids have no parents and yes that is disturbing and complicated…to us, the parents. It isn’t all that disturbing to kids. And I think I know why.

The same way we’re okay with Sam Gribley running away from home and living in a tree, or Claudia and Jamie Kincaid running away to the Met and making a home for themselves in the musty velvet of an antique bed. Kids are not so concerned with the Amber Alert of it all. What they care about is how those kids survive, how they make it out there in the wild world all on their own. Not a grown-up in sight.

Just yesterday I tested my own child. We were in a shopping center parking lot and I said, “pretend I’m not here, how would you get to the car safely?” She got a wide, serious smile on her face, let go of my hand, looked both ways and hustled to the car –very carefully. More carefully than if I had been holding her hand tight, tugging her along while she daydreamed about the row of colorful jeans we had just left behind. She was more careful because she had to be. And I was relieved. I had not sheltered her into oblivion, she had gotten to the car.

I do this a lot. When my kids watched Home Alone, I asked them if they thought they could get to the supermarket for milk (or, let’s be honest, a big old box of Frosted Flakes) in my absence.  Both of them mapped out all of the logistics, and eventually thought that yes they could. And again, I was relieved. The beauty of a book like The Boxcar Children is the voyeurism of it. Kids get to look inside the lives of kids who—either by circumstance or daring-do—are alone and have to eat, and stay warm, and stay safe, and take care of siblings, and make money, and the list goes on and on.

These stories are spectacular for showing us how kids might go about surviving outside of the watchful eye and grasp of their parents. How they might secure a commuter rail train pass from their parents’ waste basket, how they might give up their weekly ice cream sundae bought and paid for out of their very own allowance so they might save enough to eat on the mean streets of New York City. These authors are showing us resourcefulness at play, and extraordinary resilience, and I thank them for this.

Because in an age when we are all a tight hand-hold away from our kids—or maybe a text, or a facetime call away, we kind of need someone to expose them to a world without parents so that they at least pause to wonder if they themselves would know to make an abandoned boxcar into a shelter should they come upon one.

I, for one, loved the escape of these books and wasn’t at all fearful of them. Thankfully, my daughter feels the same way, and thankfully, when she did get to the car on her own, she turned to me with pride and relief and said, “can you go back to being here now?”

Far too many to list, but here is a selected list:

For early to middle graders (K-4):

The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

Grades 3-6:

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

And for ages 8 to 80…(we all might as well get a skill set, just in case):

The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn Igguidan and Hal Igguidan

The Daring Book for Girls by Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz