Billy is an angry, aggressive 11 year-old who is disruptive at school and destructive, argumentative and difficult at home. His meltdowns are catastrophic and impact upon everyone around him including his parents and his younger sister Lucy. He is the title character in my book Billy Bramble and the Great Big Cook Off, which was published almost exactly two years ago. Happy birthday Billy!
He is the kind of child that documentaries like Violent Child, Desperate Parents are made about, that strategies like Non-Violent Resistance are developed for, that guidance like the Home Office Information Guide: adolescent to parent violence and abuse is written about. He is the child that until relatively recently, no one much wanted to talk about, let alone try to understand and help. He spends a lot of his time in the school ‘naughty room’. ‘I think I am bad right the way through from my outsides to my insides’ he says. He is the child who on the face of it, isn’t much of a hero.
But Billy is the hero of this story; articulate, funny, interesting and lost. We all need stories that allow us to identify with the hero, to root for him or her. When does a boy like Billy ever get to read something uplifting and hopeful about someone just like him? The adults around our children also need the opportunity to share books and initiate difficult conversations. Billy is after all so much more than the huge feelings that overwhelm him. He has dreams and ambitions and is emotionally intelligent and determined. Brambles are interesting things he tells us, ‘The bramble is a survivor.’
The difficulty in writing about aggressive, challenging behaviours is shame. The shame children feel at carrying such huge, destructive feelings and the shame of the adults around them, left helpless and sometimes judged. That’s why Billy has an imaginery dog, a vicious, frightening hound called Gobber. Gobber represents Billy’s rage, fear and sadness, his dysregulation: something that with help Billy can learn to tame.
His parents are doing their best, learning how to parent him in new ways and occasionally shouting and throwing shoes. They are imperfect, like all of us. Much of the action takes place of the page and is left to our adult imagination, ‘I am sad and Mum is cross and now Mum is on the phone and I am scared she is arranging for me to be taken away’ he tells us, although we know Mum is calling for help. The jeopardy is real but short-lived.
Billy’s luck begins to change with the arrival of Mrs Buttress into his life, Teaching Assistant extraordinaire. She supports him at school and teaches him to cook. Through cookery, the patience and connection of Mrs Buttress, and the growing understanding and skill of his parents, Billy begins to experience himself more positively. As his confidence grows Gobber becomes calmer and easier for Billy to control. As success beckons, Billy must start to rewrite the story of himself, ‘He is not the boss of my universe any more and I have a feeling my universe will be a much better place to live in from now on’.
I would like to write more Billys and a Lucy (Billy’s younger sister, who competes with Billy for attention, struggles with homework and is always hungry). Therapeutic stories for older children are thin on the ground and many have connected with Billy and ask for more of him. I’m giving Billy a fresh airing for his birthday, in the hope that he has a chance at finding a greater readership and realising the potential I’d imagined for him.
If you know a Billy, or someone working with or parenting a Billy please tell them about my book and send them a link. It’s full of jokes, lists and recipes brought to life by the engaging and funny illustrations of super-talented illustrator Kara McHale and published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Despite the difficult subject matter we set out to offer children and the adults around them something hopeful, entertaining and funny and a starter for gentle conversations around big feelings. We’re proud of what we created and we’d very much like to create some more. We have loads of ideas. Billy says a massive ‘thank you’ for your support and so do we.