Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Battle of the Newberys: Flora & Ulysses vs. The Year of Billy Miller


Tale of the Tape:
  • Flora and Ulysses is the 2014 Newbery Winner. The Year of Billy Miller is a 2014 Newbery Honoree.
  • Both are supposedly for ages 8-12/grade level 3-7. (More about that below.)
  • Both are terrific in different ways.
Flora and Ulysses is wacky-silly, with lots of physical humor involving a flying superhero squirrel. You have to suspend disbelief from the moment you open the book. Its gravitas comes from the fact that Flora's parents are divorced and her mom--a writer--seems to have abandoned her emotionally in favor of an antique lamp. So on a basic level you have a silly story about a superhero squirrel who can type poems on Flora's mom's typewriter--whatever that is. And on a deeper level you have a story about a girl who wants to be loved, and who longs for a life more magical than it is. Author Kate DiCamillo loves to mix the dark and light sides of life, generally by making her lead characters the victims of broken families. Hey, it seems to work: this is her third Newbery recognition.

The Year of Billy Miller is a simpler, sweeter book, reminiscent of Marc Brown's Arthur series. There are no flying superhero squirrels, and nothing that requires imaginative leaps of faith. It follows a boy named Billy through his second-grade year. (This would be an appropriate time to point out that this is really for 6-8-year-olds, unless your 8-12-year-old enjoys reading about second graders.) Two things make it unique. First, it has deep characters, including an emotionally unfulfilled dad, a pitch-perfect 3-year-old girl, and an insecure title character whom you can see growing up over the course of the year. Second, the book is broken into four parts: Billy's interaction with his teacher, his dad, his little sister, and his mom, allowing a deeper dive into each relationship.

And the winner is:

Both are wonderful books. I'm giving the nod to Flora and Ulysses. It's more off-the-wall, and has more of an emotional whomp: its highs are higher and its lows are lower. The Year of Billy Miller will make you smile and want to hug someone. Flora and Ulysses will make you laugh, then cry, then want to hug someone. Read Flora with your 4th grader and Billy with your 2nd grader, and everyone will be happy. And wistful. And want to hug someone.

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