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"I'm sitting on my favourite park bench, under my favourite tree, a great spreading chestnut tree. And the bees are out. Lovely. I've got a picnic on my lap, and there's a bunch of kids playing football. What more could I want? One of them's good too, skinny like I was, a bit scrawny, little bandy legs, but he leaves them all standing. Like I did, once."
It is Billy the Kid's eightieth birthday, and as he sits on his favourite park bench, whiling away the hours before the match, he reminisces about his life. And it has been an eventful life. All Billy ever wanted to do was to play football for Chelsea FC. And he did too, before the war. He was good, scoring nine goals in his first season. Word had it that he would be playing for England before the year was out. But then Hitler came. And then war came. And Billy remembered his father's words that he must never go fighting in a war, any war. But Billy's brother Joe, full of fire, joined up to fight Hitler and within the month was dead, a casualty of Dunkirk. Because of Joe's death, Billy broke his promise to his father and joined up too, as a medic. And from then on, nothing went right for Billy. Nothing went right for Billy for a long, long time. The peace and safe harbour of that park bench has been so very hard to find…
A story for young, but confident, readers of perhaps six to nine, Billy the Kid is not one that will last them forever. The narrative is simple but the vocabulary fairly challenging and, at just over a hundred pages, it is a satisfying read for children of this age. Youngsters much older than this may find some unlikely co-incidences though - too many characters make Chelsea's first team for instance, and estranged people find each other again too easily – and so, Billy the Kid is probably not for them. For the younger ones, though, it is quite brilliant.
One of the things I like best about Morpurgo is that quiet, but certain voice of his. He is an emotionally engaging writer and his stories always tug at the heartstrings. His narrative fairly carries you along and he is not afraid to write of distressing and serious events even in his books for the early readers, such as this one, Billy the Kid. Neither is that quiet, certain voice afraid to make its own opinions clear. Morpurgo's books about war reveal a pacifist authorial tone and I would imagine his political leanings – if any – are left of centre. However, he never fails to write with balance and to present alternative points of view. He is most certainly not a propagandist. Here, in Billy the Kid, Billy's father is a veteran of the First World War and a trades unionist. He sees war as a rich man's game in which the poor man suffers – I am pretty much in agreement with this! However, in balance, Billy's brother Joe is young, idealistic, patriotic and full of national pride. He sees no alternative but to fight such an evil as Hitler. This balance is a feature in anything Morpurgo writes and it is invaluable because it allows a child to test his or her values, beliefs and assumptions, and better still, to make his or her own judgement. I like this lack of didacticism, and I like the way Morpurgo weaves "issues" seamlessly into "events" in a way that is not stilted or contrived.
I like Morpurgo too for his gentleness. I love the way he can be honest about terrible things – as here, in Billy the Kid, about the brutality of war and its immediate and long-term effects – without ever being lurid or too graphic. The most sensitive of children could read and understand his work without it preying on their minds as some things can. This is just what any parent wants. It is not wise to cocoon a child from everything and allow them to believe their world will always consist of apple pies and cuddles at bedtime. It is, though, equally unwise to present them with horrors they are unable to understand fully or to deal with. By telling gentle, kindly, but truthful stories in his gentle, kindly, but truthful way, Morpurgo is providing a bank of very worthwhile books. Here, in Billy the Kid, he challenges very young readers to try to understand some very different attitudes towards fighting wars, to be aware of what happens to people when they have fought in wars and to see how their lives may change irrevocably. He also talks of grief and a personal search for peace and of lending a helping hand to those in pain. Yet amazingly, for all this serious talk, Billy the Kid is a happy book with lots of laughter. The football scenes are wonderfully exhilarating and full of joy.
Both my sons have read Billy the Kid. Conor (8), who is interested in wars and soldiers and generally all things military, but who is slowly becoming less interested in the glitz of big explosions and more interested in the mind and heart of the soldier, enjoyed it thoroughly, although I doubt he'd read it again. There is just too much football in it for a geek like him! Kieran (7), who lives and breathes football, and in particular Chelsea FC, absolutely loved it, surprisingly enough, and doesn't want it to go anywhere near the pile of read books for donation to either Oxfam or the school library. He, I am sure, will be reading it several times more. I just thought it was lovely. Here, I will leave you with a lovely bit, as Billy reminisces about his mother:
"Mum used to do sausages on Sundays. Toad in the hole and bubble and squeak and gravy. Loved her sausages. Loved her gravy. Loved her."
Ah, how could you resist?
ISBN: 0 00 710547 9
Published by Harper Collins, the list price for the hardcover is £12.99 and even though Amazon has it for £9.09, I doubt that I would pay almost a tenner for Billy the Kid, much as we liked it. The paperback's list price is £4.99 and this is probably more reasonable for a short novel of this kind. What you should do, though, is wander over to www.thebookpeople.co.uk who have a series of four Morpurgo books, including this one, Toro! Toro!, Cool! and The Butterfly Lion at £4.99 the set. All are good and at a price like that, worth the purchase. Otherwise, I would recommend a visit to the library.
Great review Jill I have only read one Morpurgo but I liked the style. I am reading Birdsong by Sebastian Faulksat the moment which is about WW1and I think I am with Morpurgo and his attitude to war. Dave x
rowei 29.02.2004 23:17
dadmancat 26.02.2004 19:26
excellent stuff as ever...don't you get bored with being so consistent? can't you write some utter drivel for a change? I'm sure if i had children this would be perfect, except for the Chelsea bits...but i could mumble those bits...and try not to let my nails tear into the paper....