Being Billy by Phil Earle

I first came across this author at a conference and got the impression that most of his a_billy2children’s books fall into the ‘funny’ category, but this one is very different.

His first job was as a care worker in a children’s home which influenced him to write this story about Billy, a looked after child who describes himself as’ a lifer’ because he has been in the care system for such a long time.

Billy and his younger twin half siblings, Lizzie and Louie,  were taken away from their alcoholic mother, Annie and their violent father eight years before and Billy has been their protector and main carer ever since.  His kind and sensitive big brother persona does not spill into any other aspects of his life or relationships and the staff at the home, whom he disparagingly describes as the ‘scummers’ , spend much of their time physically restraining him as his anger bubbles over at every opportunity. He has had an unsuccessful foster placement in the past which didn’t work out because he seriously attacked his foster father which led to his return to care. It soon becomes clear that he engineered this return because he was so anxious about his siblings.

He exudes a ‘do not touch me’ approach at school which means that he has no friends and is regarded with wariness by the teachers. That is until as a moody new pupil, Daisy appears on the scene and they slowly develop a friendship as they realise that they have much in common.

The impending crisis is that the twins are having supervised contact with Annie who is now living alone, is recovered and in control of her life. The long term plan is for them to return to live with her but this does not include Billy as the relationship between him and his mother is so damaged. He feels understandably rejected and disappointed at what the future holds and his anti- social behaviour escalates. He is particularly angry with Ronnie, the man he describes as ‘the Colonel’ who manages the home and who has to feel the full force of his bad behaviour despite trying hard to be patient, jolly and positive. Without spoiling the plot, this turns out to be a very positive enduring relationship for both of them.

I seem to be drawn to books about children going through painful experiences and the simmering rage and pain felt by Billy is just as raw as that of the younger protagonist in My Name is Leon by Kit De Waal. Both boys are trying to cope with abandonment and rejection at the impending separation from siblings who they love.  It is a sobering thought that this is not an unusual experience for children in the care system as brothers and sisters are often split away from each other with limited contact.

Although he is a tough with a spikey and difficult personality, I really warmed to Billy because he is such a fighter and has a strong sense of justice. He genuinely believes that he is the best carer for his siblings and they are deeply attached to him. His gradual trusting relationship with Ronnie who tries hard to help him through this terrible time is completely believable. As they come to know one another better he reveals that he is also a disappointed and angry man but that he is fiercely loyal to Billy and only wants the best for him.

I strongly recommend reading this very moving story which has plenty of jeopardy and surprises throughout to keep things moving along. It is cleverly multi layered with tragedy and humour- a bit like real life I suppose.   My only slight reservation is with the choice of image on the cover which immediately made me think of Billy Elliott. I’m not sure if this was a deliberate reference but I found that it framed the story in an unhelpful way. This Billy may have similarly humble roots but this story is definitely not about a successful ballet dancer.

Karen Argent

March 2017

(This review was first published on www.letterpressproject.co.uk in March 2017)

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