Children's corner: 'The Year of Billy Miller' among new winning efforts by Newbery honorees

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Winning a Newbery Medal is considered the pinnacle for children's book authors.

Awarded annually by the American Library Association, the Newbery Medal is given to the best written children's book; several Newbery Honor, or runner-up, books are often named.

Yet Newbery Medal-winning authors don't stop writing just because they've won such a prestigious award. In fact, 2013 brought a big crop of new books by Newbery honorees.

Here's a look at just some of these books:

* Author/illustrator Kevin Henkes is a multitalented force in children's literature, having won accolades for both his art and his writing.

He won a 2004 Newbery Honor for his novel "Olive's Ocean." The following year he won the 2005 Caldecott Medal for "Kitten's First Full Moon." The Caldecott Medal is given annually by the ALA to the best illustrated children's book.

This year, Mr. Henkes has published two new books. In "The Year of Billy Miller" (Greenwillow, $16.99, ages 6-9), he offers readers a thoughtful novel created in the best tradition of books such as the classic "Ramona" and "Henry Huggins" series by Beverly Cleary.

Like Ms. Cleary, Mr. Henkes focuses on creating characters whose daily ups and downs are so realistic that readers will find themselves feeling as if they are reading about their own lives.

The main character, Billy Miller, will particularly resonate with young readers. Like many second-graders, he is an uneven mixture of confidence and insecurity. And that's what makes him both so believable and so likable.

Mr. Henkes details Billy's life as a second-grader by distilling it through his relationships with four key people in his life: his teacher, his father, his younger sister and his mother. Each of the book's four sections consists of several chapters that present vignettes of Billy's year, from his efforts to craft a diorama of a bat habitat to dealing with his sister's meltdowns to taking part in the class poetry show.

As in his other children's novels, Mr. Henkes writes at a measured pace, giving readers time to get to know Billy and his family and friends. While the story unfolds gently, he still provides plenty of daily drama and humor as Billy worries about issues such as whether his teacher likes him and how to deal with a know-it-all classmate.

Readers also will delight in his black-and-white line drawings, which bring Billy and his world further to life.

Mr. Henkes also wrote and illustrated another book that was published this year. "Penny and Her Marble" (Greenwillow, $12.99, ages 4-7) is a book for children who are just beginning to read chapter books.

The book is the third in a series about an irrepressible young mouse named Penny. In this book, she finds a marble on her neighbor's lawn and pockets it for herself. As the day wears on, however, Penny becomes guilt-stricken that she may have taken someone else's favorite object and puts it back -- only to find out that her neighbor had placed it on the lawn hoping that someone like Penny would find it.

Mr. Henkes' reassuring story is matched by his illustrations, which expressively convey Penny's emotions as she works through an ethical dilemma.

* Author Patricia MacLachlan, who won the 1985 Newbery Medal for "Sarah, Plain and Tall," had two new novels out this year.

In "The Truth of Me" (HarperCollins, $14.99, ages 7-10), the narrator is a boy known as "Robert" to his parents, but "Robbie" to his grandmother Maddy, who understands him best. Robbie knows that Maddy is considered eccentric by his parents and other adults, but he's more than happy to spend the summer with her when his musician parents head off to Europe for a series of concerts.

In this short but emotionally satisfying book, Ms. MacLachlan shows what happens when Robbie learns a family secret that helps him understand more about himself and his parents.

The quiet novel won't appeal to every young reader, yet there are many who will enjoy Robbie's journey of self-discovery and will be enthralled by the seemingly magic way he and his grandmother communicate with animals.

Animals also play a pivotal role in Ms. MacLachlan's second book published this year, "White Fur Flying" (McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster, $15.99, ages 7-10). The story is told by Zoe, whose mother rescues Great Pyrenees dogs and trains them for new owners.

As the story opens, a new family has moved in next to Zoe's house in the country, and Phillip, the boy of the family, refuses to speak. Phillip has been sent to live with his aunt while his parents sort out their relationship, and the move has seemingly taken away Phillip's ability to talk.

But he somehow feels comfortable talking to dogs, and in the end, it's a dog named Jack who keeps Phillip safe in a storm and gives him the courage to find his voice again.

Readers will enjoy spending time with Zoe and her family and will cheer when Phillip finally decides it's safe to speak.

* Author Linda Sue Park won the 2002 Newbery Medal for her novel "A Single Shard," but her newest book is a picture book.

Written by Ms. Park and illustrated with joyous abandon by Matt Phelan, "Xander's Panda Party" (Clarion, $16.99, ages 3-6) tells the story of one panda's idea for a little party that expands as the guest list continues to grow. Embedded in the text are some science facts about different types of animals, something that Ms. Park writes further about in an author's note at the end of the book.

But mostly, "Xander's Panda Party" is just pure fun as Ms. Park tells her tale in a cleverly rhyming text filled with energy and humor. Mr. Phelan's watercolor-and-ink illustrations also burst with liveliness, especially as the party gets bigger and bigger.


Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.

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