It takes a truly astounding writer to take a story filled with sadness, tragedy and real-life horror but deliver it with an underlying optimism, yet that is what Michael Morpurgo achieves in this heartbreaking children’s book about a Chelsea pensioner’s journey from fledgling Chelsea FC star to vagrant.
Billy the Kid opens with its eponymous narrator reminiscing on a park bench as an old man. And as with any octogenarian you might spot on your travels, you have no idea what incredible life story he holds inside. Thankfully Billy shares his with us and what unravels is both a history lesson and remarkable story of triumph and tragedy.
Billy’s life story begins in the 1930s. A promising football player, he is granted the opportunity to play for Chelsea as the Second World War begins to become a harsh reality for Britain.
He loses his beloved brother to combat and that motivates him to abandon his football dreams and sign up to join the war effort, driving ambulances.
Morpurgo cleverly weaves in historical detail to Billy’s story and we learn about prisoner of war camps, the Italian’s role in World War 2, and the horror of the Nazi concentration camps. The prose paints a picture of some of these awful events without diluting the horror but while respecting the age of the readership.
Morpurgo also achieves a balance between detailing historical events with accuracy and precision while staying faithful to the human story at the crux of these events.
Just when you think life couldn’t get any tougher for Billy, he returns from the war with a badly broken leg (ending his footballing career) to discover his family and his home have become casualties to the bombing. He has lost everything he has ever cared for.
What happens to Billy next I found to be entirely unexpected for a children’s book. Billy turns to drink and spends many years sleeping rough, and roaming from town to town.
I think this is a very brave and important story to share with children. It’s of course far from uncommon still for men to return from war too damaged to slot back in to civilian life, and to end up on the streets. Morpurgo had successfully drawn us into Billy’s life story so to witness this demise was heartbreaking, and I hope through this character’s story there is a lesson for children that people who hit hard times may once have had talents or skills or people who loved them but have stumbled upon dreadful misfortune. I was encouraged that even when Billy didn’t always behave well, Toby always had sympathy for him.
What saved this book from being an absolute sob-fest were the strong friendships that emerged throughout. Qualities like loyalty, kindness, hope and optimism shone through. The overarching message: it’s people and their love, loyalty and kindness that gets us through, and without that we have nothing.
Billy’s life did turn around in the end but not in a fairy-tale fashion. He didn’t suddenly win the lottery or miraculously start playing for Chelsea again or get married to the love of his life but he did rediscover his dignity, and that neatly tied up what will be for Toby and me a very special story. I heartily recommend it.
Read-aloud-ability: 5/5 – seamless prose.
Fun factor: 1/5
Fidget factor: 1/5
Fear factor: 3/5 – Not too scary but some dark, uncomfortable moments.
Page turnability: 4/5
Mum’s final score: 9/10
Toby’s final score: 10/10 – so he gives 10 for every book but I think he really meant it this time.