The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

Carolyn Haywood, ushered into the twenty-first century, gently. There were one or two annoying little references that I am not going to dwell on, but overall Mr. Henkes has written a story about second grader Billy Miller that reminds me of my beloved Carolyn Haywood books about Betsy and Eddie and Billy and Ellen. So I can skip the very brief annoyances.

Billy is worried about second grade. He’s afraid he isn’t smart enough for second grade. Ms. Silver, his teacher, assures him that he is smart. Billy then feels “as if he were filled with helium and might rise up like a balloon . . . [H]is mind was sending off sparks.”

Billy’s three year old sister, Sal, is sometimes a nuisance and sometimes an ally. When the two of them try to stay up all night long together, they, of course, don’t make it. But they do bond as siblings.

Billy’s papa is an artist. He’s “waiting for his breakthrough, waiting for things to click.” In the meantime, he makes art out of found objects. And he takes care of Billy and Sal at home while Billy’s mama teaches English at the high school. Billy’s mama is loving and kind. She likes chocolate and rainy days and coffee and quiet. Billy writes a poem about his mom for a school assignment.

Some people at Goodreads and Amazon complained that this book was boring. But I thought it was lovely, with just the right amount of action and second grade angst. If your children haven’t had an overdose of video games and TV and other technology at the ripe young age of seven or eight, The Year of Billy Miller may suit them just fine.

QOTD: What teacher have you had who encouraged you and made your mind send off sparks?

Yoko Ono, Collector of Skies by Nell Beram and Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky

51zA84zWYPL._SX258_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_I wouldn’t say that Yoko Ono would be someone I would be interested in reading about on my own, but since this biography was nominated for the YA Nonfiction Cybils award, I gave it a go. And I learned some interesting things.

First of all, I was confirmed in my preconceived opinions about so-called “rebels” and “nonconformists.” Yoko Ono was “sick and tired of that middle-class scene”—“the value system adopted by her parents.” So she turned to her avant-garde friends in Greenwich Village—composers John Cage and Philip Glass, artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and art patron Peggy Guggenheim— for validation. The biographers tell us over and over that Yoko struggled all her life to impress and leave a mark on the art world, and later the music world. She was just as conformist as her parents; she just chose a different culture to conform to and inhabit.

Yoko Ono:
“The thought of being able to do something, that thought that I may be able to leave a mark on the world excited me tremendously.”

“Many people thought that I was a very rich girl who was just ‘playing avant-garde.’ . . . I had to say, ‘I know you are a talented artist. All you have to do is reciprocate that and just realize that I am a talented artist.'”

“I was an outcast in avant-garde because the rest of the avant-garde was trying to alienate the audience. . . . I was trying to communicate. I was trying to say ‘love’ and ‘yes’ and ‘peace.'”

Finally, after becoming frustrated with the art world and its critics and their failure to recognize her genius, she found her own worshipper, John Lennon. The biography descends into hagiography as the biographers try to justify and be completely non-judgemental about Lennon’s desertion of his wife and child and Yoko’s abandonment of her (second) husband and child so that the two could be together and revel in their misunderstood genius-ness. When Yoko and John later travel to Majorca to kidnap the daughter that Yoko had abandoned for the previous three years, the authors assure us that “all she (Yoko) wanted was her fair share of time with her daughter.”

They did it all for art’s sake. I did find some of Yoko Ono’s “art instructions” interesting and somewhat thought-provoking. But she was much less profound than she thought she was. “Yoko believed that words, and even ideas themselves, could be art. She wanted viewers to ask: What makes something a painting? What makes something not a painting?”

Well, I would answer those questions rather simply. Words and ideas may be art, but for something to be a painting, it requires paint. An idea in the artist’s head, especially if communicated very imprecisely to the viewer by means of words and/or enshrined objects, is not art, and it is certainly not a painting. I would say that so-called “found objects” are not sculpture either, since sculpture requires an artist who manipulates a medium in some way. “Found poems” are only poetry if a real, live poet puts the words together in a way so as to create meaning.

And primal screams do not make music either. So, Ms. Ono and I are in disagreement about the nature of art, the definition of music, and the art and discipline of making a beautiful and loving life. Still, I found her life story interesting, but rather sad.