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The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh by Helen Rutter

Cover illustration by Andrew Bannecker

As someone who spends possibly a great deal more time on Twitter than she should, I very regularly have book giveaways pop up in my stream of primarily book-related content. Some of these are for authors and books I recognise and would dearly love to win, others I ignore and some – like this one – I know nothing about and have to go away and Google in order to find out more.

Having read a short article on The Bookseller website, I discovered that this debut middle-grade title is being published by Scholastic after a ‘heated’ auction and so, intrigued, I stuck my hand up for it and was delighted when my name was pulled out of the virtual ‘hat’. Knowing very little about it other than it tells the story of 11-year-old Billy who is a stammerer, I bumped it straight to the top of my TBR pile when it dropped onto the doormat this week, eager to see whether or not the headline The funniest debut of 2021 presented on the front cover was an accurate description.

Having only read one other humorous read anticipated next year, I cannot tell you whether or not this is the funniest but it will certainly be up there. By turns it is brilliantly funny, desperately sad and incredibly uplifting and will be devoured by its audience when it reaches bookshops on February 4th.

In common with many 11-year-olds in this country, Billy has reached the milestone that is transition to secondary school. Unlike most of his contemporaries however, he has chosen not to attend the school where all bar one of his peers from primary school will be going, but has instead decided on a fresh start at Bannerdale. As he prepares himself for what would be an anxious time in any child’s life, Billy has an additional worry: his stammer.

As he reflects on how he is treated by those around him, he describes in some detail the different categories into which other people fall – based on the way that they react to his speech and their ability to make him feel comfortable – and lists the options that he believes are open to him to try to rid himself of his stammer so that he will not stand out like a sore thumb in his new surroundings. This is vitally important, he feels, because he is desperate to make friends at his new school – genuine ones who will laugh at his jokes and not hang out with him because they have to, for whatever reason.

On board the coach that transports him for his first day, Billy reels off a list of coping strategies he has found useful in the past to stay hidden and decides that his best option is to maintain silence at all times, with the exception of registration. This seems to work quite well for him until his form teacher sets the class homework: preparing a getting-to-know-you Show and Tell task to share some information about themselves.

Having survived his first day, Billy goes to visit his biggest ally – his beloved Granny Bread who not only loves him as only a grandmother can, but is a huge fan of his jokes and encourages him in his desire to be a comedian. Together they make a pinkie promise that he will perform in front of an audience and she will attend to support him – something he cannot see how he will ever be able to manage but is determined to do, for her sake.

Panicked by the prospect of Show and Tell, Billy tries his level best to get out of it, as he has done at primary school, to no avail before adopting an inventive strategy – which causes great hilarity when he delivers his creative and humorous presentation to the rest of the class. Now that his classmates know that he has a stammer, slowly – but surely – Billy begins to make friends and starts to spend lunchtimes with several of them playing games under the supervision of the sympathetic Mr Osho.

Unfortunately though, classmate William Blakemore senses a weakness in Billy and starts to take advantage by bullying him mercilessly for his own amusement. Things then go from bad to worse when Granny Bread has a stroke and is taken into hospital. As he starts to think about how he can keep his pinkie promise, and Blakemore’s unkindness worsens, Billy has some tough decisions to make about his future in comedy. With the school talent show on the horizon, will Billy be able to overcome his fears to perform and will Granny Bread be there to see his routine?

As someone who was bullied for almost her entire school career and has been again as an adult, I always feel so terribly sorry for characters like Billy. Sadly, both as a parent and as a teacher I know that adults in school very often miss a great deal of what goes on between bullies and their victims and many children who are different in any way – like Billy – suffer greatly as the perpetrators see them as easy targets. The way in which the issue is handled here would make this a brilliant class reader in upper Key Stage 2 – particularly in a Year 6 class – because there is so much discussion and PSHE work that could be done around the themes of difference, bullying and transition.

Although these topics are handled on a regular basis in schools throughout the year, when we talk about differences they are often those which are visible such as skin colour or other physical differences – very rarely are they those that remain hidden. In common with the superb The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson, which relates the story of a boy with OCD, this book will have the power to not only entertain its intended audience but to inform.

I have taught several children who have stammered over the last few years – indeed I have one in my class currently – and I have always tried my hardest to support them in their learning. Reading this has made me question my practice enormously. Yes, I try to allow all my children the time that they need in which to speak but there are a variety of sensible strategies set out here that I will be keen to trial to support those who are less confident in speaking in front of others, whether that is as the result of a difficulty such as a stammer or other issues such as confidence. In common with A Kind of Spark by Ellen McNicholl, which I found far more useful than any CPD I have received in teaching autistic individuals, this is a book which all teachers should read – especially, as training on teaching children with speech difficulties is to all intents and purposes non-existent in my experience.

I am thrilled and incredibly lucky to have been able to read this ahead of publication, for which I must thank Scholastic enormously. I will be delighted to share this with my class and am hoping that they will enjoy it as much as I have. A fantastic – and very much deserved – 5 out of 5 stars.

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