So many people, myself included, have been waiting for Pam Smy’s second illustrated/graphic novel. And just like Thornhill, it’s moving, sensitive, and intense.
Billy is thirteen years old, and no longer feels safe in the one place he should: at home. His mum’s partner is violent towards her, so he packs a bag with supplies, and leaves. Finding refuge in an old pillbox by a graveyard, he meets an old man. Billy strikes up a friendship and helps him tidy the headstones for reasons unclear. Promising to keep his secret for a few days, the old man reveals his own past, which also haunts his present.
While Billy copes with being away from his mum, Grace, not only frantically worries about her boy, is also terrified of what her partner might do behind closed doors.
Culminating in more than one reunion, the beauty and bliss of being with those you love show that bonds are never truly broken.
When “children’s” books tackle serious topics there’s a huge amount of responsibility on the author. Not only to treat the subject matter with sensitivity and accuracy but to also take the reader into account too. I have no doubt about the amount of research Smy has done. The realness of Grace and Billy’s situation is a testament to this and being an accomplished writer.
As I was reading though, I was constantly thinking of who the audience should be. Billy is thirteen, and I struggled to place it in this age group. Part of this is down to the narrative thread following Billy’s mum. It’s unusual to have an adult perspective in a children’s book, and as an adult, I found myself with more of a connection to Grace than Billy, and dare I say it, less sympathy towards him for running away. Perhaps a younger reader would have a different view, but Grace’s pain, for her lost son and abusive partner, felt like a greater weight. It’s got me wanting to discuss whether such anguish from an adult point of view has a place in children’s literature.
Coming back to responsibility, I also thought a great deal about the characters who kept Billy’s secret. They knew he had run away and that people were looking for him, including his poor mother and the police. They promised not to tell, albeit with conditions and inner turmoil. But I wondered whether this is a message to send to young readers and for that reason, I think it is more suited to teenagers and adults.
With these issues aside, everything, of course, works out for the best. The finale is beautiful, and the accompanying artwork is as atmospheric and emotive as you’d expect. The two threads are powerful and I shed more than a few tears. This isn’t a book I’ll forget, that’s for sure.
As mentioned, it’s difficult to recommend to a specific age group. It’s not one for primary, and the domestic violence theme could be a trigger for others. Read this book first before handing it over to the young people in your care.
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