Billy is an eleven-year-old boy with a big dream. He wants to be a stand-up comedian when he grows up: delivering pinpoint punch-lines and having audiences hang on his every hilarious word. A tough career for anyone, but surely impossible for Billy, who has a stammer. How will he find his voice, if his voice won't let him speak?
Reviewed by Nikki Gamble
The Boy who Made Everyone Laugh, Helen Rutter’s debut children’s book, is one of my top picks this month.
‘The boy’ in the title is Billy Plimpton, and he’s about to start secondary school. That can be tough for any pre-teen, but Billy has a stammer, and the thought of making the right impression on his new schoolmates is daunting. Billy has battled through primary school, and so he is hopeful that a change of scene will provide an opportunity to start afresh.
Surprisingly, Billy has ambitions to be a stand-up comedian. Success seems unlikely because even the show-and-tell speech he has to make to his new classmates fills him with dread, and he considers every avoidance tactic under the sun. So far, he has managed to get by remaining silent in class and using the cough and whisper technique when talking is unavoidable. But now his cover is about to be blown, and Billy knows he’s going to have to find a way to overcome his fear. His solution is a triumph, and Billy gains approval from his classmates. However, problems are not solved easily. There are still obstacles to be overcome, not least in the form of arch-bully, William Blakemore.
The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh is inspired by Helen’s son, who has a stammer; this undoubtedly is one reason the story feels authentic. The tone is empathetic but it does not veer towards sentimentalism. The characters are rounded including the bully Blakemore, who Billy comes to understand as the story progresses. Mr Osho, Billy’s form teacher is an inspiration and fantastic role model for all teachers. He’s a listener and intuits what Billy is feeling and needing. Teacher and pupil bond over a shared love of jazz music. Mum is caring and practical but busy, so Billy’s special relationship with Granny Bread is one that he cherishes.
Helen Rutter strikes exactly the right balance between respect for her protagonist and a thoroughly entertaining story. There is plenty of laughter but she avoids taking the easy route of making the stammer the point of hilarity. In fact, Billy also has to learn that laughing at himself in a self-deprecating way as a means of ingratiating himself with his peers is not the best way to create a comedy persona.
The humour is derived largely through Billy’s voice. He’s an astute observer and commentator on life. He loves lists: Things to Make Chole Cry, Ways to Ger Rid of My Stammer; Ways to Get Me Out of the Me Me Speech. The cracker style jokes at the beginning of each chapter work every time, and the comedic timing is executed to perfection. While this is a debut children’s book, Helen Rutter’s comedy writing experience is very much in evidence. With a background in performance, it is no surprise that the text reads aloud very well, making it a great choice for a class reader.
The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh is a book full of heart I will be recommending it far and wide.
Formerly a teacher (secondary and primary) and university lecturer, with over 35 years’ experience, Nikki has worked extensively in schools across the UK and internationally. She is the author of Exploring Children’s Literature now in its fourth edition (Sage, 2019) Co-author of Guiding Readers, winner of the UKLA Academic Book award (UCL, 2016). Nikki runs workshops for teachers, librarians, students and researchers on different aspects of children's literature, an online summer school and an Audience with events, celebrating writers and illustrators who have made an exceptional contribution to the world of children's books. Further information exploringchildrensliterature.uk