9th March 2021
Parent Debra Fry reviews a new children's book by Helen Rutter, about an 11-year-old boy who stammers and dreams of being a stand-up comedian. You can watch our chat with Helen Rutter at the bottom of the page.
'The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh', the debut novel by Helen Rutter aimed at children aged 8-12, immediately resonated with me in a number of ways: as the parent of a child who stammers, a teacher and as a former tween (pre-teenager) myself.
Rutter is the parent of a child who stammers herself and her son Lenny (13) was the inspiration for the story. Their shared, real-life experiences are what make this novel an authentic interpretation of a family's experiences with stammering.
The book's most valuable asset from my perspective is that it provides an insight into the thoughts and feelings of a child who stammers and his realistic and brutally honest description of what it is like to stammer.
First and foremost, the book's most valuable asset from my perspective is that it provides an insight into the thoughts and feelings of a child who stammers and his realistic and brutally honest description of what it is like to stammer. It is written in the first person in a chatty style which is very engaging to the junior reader. There are many hilarious and relatable anecdotes and each chapter begins with a different joke, which children will love.
The protagonist, Billy Plimpton, is an 11-year-old boy and the story documents his transition to high school. His humorous and expressive outlook is captivating as he hilariously addresses all of the clichés and stereotypes surrounding stammering. In one particular section, Billy amusingly categorises the four main types of grown-ups: the jokers, the waiters, the mind readers and the encouragers. I think many of us reading this will have encountered all of those too!
The first chapters focus quite heavily on stammering, weaving facts into the narrative to educate the reader such as the fact that stammering often runs in families; the use of positive language around stammering; the (sometimes unrealistic) expectations of speech therapy; and the comments made by well-meaning relatives.
In one segment, Billy describes the smile on his mum's face as she sits in the corner every week at speech therapy. I definitely recognised myself in Billy's mother! Also, I love that Billy shrewdly uses trigger words to try to manipulate his parents into giving him his own way.
The plot is a real rollercoaster of emotions depicting fear, frustration and desperation, yet is also very light-hearted, amusing and funny. The range of characters and their distinct and differing relationships with Billy give the story great depth.
Once into the main story, there is less of a focus on the stammer itself. Billy's struggles, self-doubt and desire to blend in and be hidden could be applied to many individuals at this stage of their lives.
In one segment, Billy describes the smile on his mum's face as she sits in the corner every week at speech therapy. I definitely recognised myself in Billy's mother!
This is a really honest, captivating and uplifting story of the underdog. Billy's focus is on improving his life by curing his stammer — he is determined to "get rid of" it and will try any means possible. But it turns out he can achieve his dreams all by himself, even though he stammers.
As my son is almost 11 and will be going to secondary school this year (just like the main character), I'd be concerned that reading about high school bullies might make him fearful about going, so I'd like to talk to him about the book while he's reading it and address any worries he might have.
I wish that everyone around my son could read this book and gain some understanding of what it is to have a stammer as well as learning how to behave around people who stammer. I would recommend this book particularly for children age 8-12, as well as parents and teachers. I would love to see a copy of this book in every school library. The story will resonate with all readers and the upshot is that everyone has different struggles that they need to face in life.
'The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh' by Helen Rutter is published by Scholastic and is available to buy now. Watch our chat with Helen Rutter below
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