Helen Rutter is on the shortlist for the 2022 Costa Children’s Book Award with her debut novel, The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh, the story of a boy who longs to be a stand-up comic, despite having a stammer. Helen talked to Andrea Reece about how the book came about, what she’s discovered writing for children, and why getting the balance between laughter and tears is all important.
Helen Rutter’s first big break was all down to Jacqueline Wilson. With a degree in drama behind her, Helen was saving up for drama college and working for a co-operative actors’ agency in Liverpool when she won the part of Ruby in a stage production of Double Act. The show ran for a whole year, taught her loads, and set off her theatrical career nicely. ‘Looking back, it feels like maybe this was all meant to be’ says Helen, laughing, ‘That I was meant to be in children’s books all along…’
The move from stage to writing came after the birth of her son. ‘I wasn’t as connected anymore, I didn’t want to tell other people’s stories as much, I wanted to tell my own. And the acting world isn’t conducive to being a mum or to family life.’ She did write a comedy show with a friend, the two of them performing it for audiences of mums and their babies, but when she tried it solo the adrenaline was just too much. ‘I couldn’t sleep after gigs. I thought, “I can’t live like this!”’
Despite writing for the stage, she hadn’t ever thought of writing a book, ‘It always seemed a ridiculous task! There are far too many words needed,’ but reading children’s books at night to her son Lenny provided inspiration. ‘I thought, “Wow, these are really good”.’ Lenny would pass on books, ‘“Read this one, Mum, it’s great,” or “This will make you cry!”.’ That started her thinking about writing but it was another reading experience of Lenny’s that provided the key moment. ‘One night, Lenny was reading a book in bed, and he called me in and said, “Mum, is it OK what they’ve said here?” It said of the character, “he stammered like an idiot”’. Lenny himself has a stammer. ‘I said “Well, how does that make you feel? It clearly isn’t OK because why are you asking?”’. Lenny wrote to the publisher, who sent him lots of books in return to his delight, but the incident, together with her observations of Lenny’s friendship with a boy who is deaf, prompted Helen to start writing. Billy Plimpton, star of her book, stammers too and also has a friend who is deaf. ‘I was thinking about what a lovely friendship they have, but how Lenny had only read about stammers in a negative way; they’re only used for baddies or nervous characters. I thought how I’ve never really read anything – and neither has he – that used stammering in a different way and as soon as the ideas started building up in my head, I realised, “Oh no, I’ve got to write a book!”’
As soon as she started writing, she says, she was completely buzzing, ‘I wrote a chapter every day and read it out to Lenny at night.’ She describes that as a real bonding experience, one that allowed Lenny to feel seen and heard, though as he points out to people all the time, the story is not about him, it’s just inspired by him. Helen meanwhile loved the lack of restrictions, compared to writing for the stage, ‘You can skip time, you can go anywhere, there are no limit on settings or characters! It was really really freeing.’
In the book’s first draft, Billy was a drummer, whereas in the final version, his passion is comedy. ‘The first draft was all character and no plot whatsoever, probably because of my acting background. But as I started to send it out to people and the feedback came in, I realised, “Oh yeah, you do need something to happen, that’s kind of important for a book.” And that’s when the comedy stuff came in because if Billy is a drummer, there’s no conflict. You can be a drummer with a stammer, so I needed something more. And because I do comedy and because my husband’s a comedian [she’s married to Rob Rouse] it felt obvious.’ She adds, ‘I basically just steal elements from my entire life!’ The moment she realised Billy was going to be a comedian was the moment she thought, ‘Oh, this could be good.’
Adding comedy she realised, could give her story the combination of humour and heart that means so much to her: ‘I’m all about being uplifted’, she says. Despite tough times at school, where he is subject to bullying, and at home, when his much-loved grandma has a stroke, Billy comes out of it all happier and stronger, and the reader finishes the book feeling thoroughly cheered too. ‘I don’t understand the obsession with dark stories’ says Helen, ‘My natural disposition is hopeful. I’m always after balance though, because that’s life, isn’t it – a mix of feeling hopeful and uplifted, then having to work through things. What I discovered writing the book is that, in comparison to writing for the stage, novels offer more space to strike that balance.’
Her second children’s book, The Boy Whose Wishes Came True, comes out in February and – though she’s not allowed to say anything about it – there might be a return for Billy Plimpton on the cards too, even, possibly, a musical (she’s writing the lyrics, Lenny and his dad are writing the music). ‘I can’t imagine writing anything other than children’s books now’, she says. ‘Children’s books have the power to talk about really important things but in the simplest of ways.’ And, she adds, ‘You’re allowed to express more joy.’
Andrea Reece is Managing Editor of Books for Keeps.
The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh is published by Scholastic, £7.99 pbk.