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Nicola Streeten’s little boy, Billy, was two years old when he died following heart surgery for problems diagnosed only ten days earlier.
Thirteen years later, able finally to revisit a diary written at the time, Streeten begins translating her notes into a graphic novel. The result, a retrospective reflection from a ‘healed’ perspective and gut wrenchingly sad at moments, is an unforgettable portrayal of trauma and our reaction to it – and, especially, the humour or absurdity so often involved in our responses.
As Streeten's story unfolds and we follow her and her partner's heroic efforts to cope with well-meaning friends and day-to-day realities, we begin to understand what she means by her aim to create a ‘dead baby story that is funny’.
A remarkable book...it is searchingly honest, and desperately sad at times. At others, it is genuinely very funny. Quite a feat.
Child bereavement may not sound like material for a comic strip, but graphic books can explore human pain with honesty and wit. A moving and often unexpectedly funny memoir.
This book is for all of us who have suffered bereavement or witnessed the grief of others. This is an easy-to-read book which gives bereaved families ‘permission’ to feel different emotions at different times…it would be good to keep in a public library for people to access if they feel they are ready.
Nicola discusses the circumstances of Billy's death and the grieving process with Matthew Bannister - (about 15 minutes in).
The death of a child has to be the worst thing imaginable that could happen to parents. It's an extraordinary subject for a graphic memoir. Streeten kept a diary after the sudden death of her two-year-old son, Billy. She has used it as the basis for her debut graphic novel, so it provides insight into surviving what for most of us hardly even bears thinking about. It is a surprise then to find it provokes laughter as well as tears. The combination of journal format and naïve artwork somehow helps to make reading about grief and loss not only bearable but entertaining.
Billy, Me & You comes in a plain yellow wraparound cover and, if you open it up, Nicola Streeten’s drawings are at first glance crude and unsophisticated (no borders etched out in Arabic script here). But once you start to read, you can see it’s not so much crude as raw, a red-eyed, fist-in-the-gut account of how Streeten and her partner (and their friends and family) dealt with – or didn’t – the death of their two-year-old son Billy after heart surgery.
What’s most remarkable is that it will make you laugh. And then there are moments that will tear your heart open.
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The most profoundly moving graphic novel I personally have ever read bar none.
[Nicola Streeten's] clarity in explaining the sequence of events and her initial emotional turmoil is just astonishing and so very touching...there is actually also a considerable amount of humour in this section of the work, as we are frequently treated to her thoughts in response to the comments of others, which range from the truly caring to the completely unhelpful, and indeed the occasionally utterly bizarre and inane.
This is probably one of the very few works out there that not only has the power to heal, but also the power to inform people how best to practically help and support someone suffering such from overwhelming emotional trauma.
This has a universal, empathetic appeal...To say it’s moving really undervalues Billy, Me & You. It is, of course, how could it not be, given the subject matter. But it’s so much more than that. For a start it’s a page turner, a single sitting read, a truly satisfying journey undertaken with the author. The emotional intensity comes through her art, and its openess and roughness is endearing, welcoming, personal and real.
This is a hugely personal memoir that serves so many purposes...This is entertaining, original, thought provoking stuff.
“In just the first few pages…Streeten establishes a rapport with the readership that is never lost throughout the entirety of this graphic diary. Every so often a graphic novel comes along that shakes you up from a jaded malaise and makes you remember that comics are a medium that has the power to share experience and express emotion like no other. Incisively perceptive, uncompromisingly observant and keenly insightful, Billy, Me & You is not just an astonishing piece of comics material in its own right but also an ambassador for the criminally overlooked work of the small press.”
This is a unique and moving memoir of what can't be compared to anything else: the loss of one's child. Going beyond the usual cliches about grief, it is not only harrowing and disturbing but acutely funny: the reader will laugh and cry, as Streeten teaches us more about loss than any of the standard textbooks on this subject. A brilliant and original book that deserves a wide audience.
The only thing that matters is whether an artist has something worth saying and the ability to say it well. In Billy, Me & You, Nicola Streeten has both. Given its subject, the book is naturally moving, but its humour, honesty and insight are certainly not inevitable. They are the result of artistry – the alchemy of turning the lead of everyday lives into the gold of art.
It is touching, enlightening and endearing. The movement between the different graphic forms allows the author to give a diverse emphasis to different parts of her grieving process. It also allows the reader to 'fill in the gas' by reference to their own experiences.
Bringing it together in this graphic art form gives the reader an opportunity to experience the grief process at its rawest, through its positive resolution. It's a story of pain, angst and recrimination but also of tenderness, patience and hope. It could be very useful for bereavement counsellors and other interested parties...[as] a resource that shows the mess, mixed messages and misunderstandings of bereavement and how lives can grow around the loss.
I am an avid consumer of all graphic novels, and I'm especially fond of biographical ones such as Harvey Pekar and Art Spiegelman. This book is up there with them. It is a brave story of what it is like to have a child who dies. Brave, because all the author's vulnerabilities are laid bare. We get an idea of how much and how long it hurts. But humour and love win out, shine through. It's a book with very difficult subject matter that is moving and enjoyable. It's a must-read for the biographical graphic novel fan and anyone interested in human nature.
Listen to an interview with Nicola Streeten about the making of her graphic novel.
On 26 November 2011 the Orbital West Wing hosted a Comica conversation between graphic novelists Nicola Streeten and Sarah Leavitt.
Nicola and Sarah have each used comics to address traumatic, highly personal experiences in their lives - Sarah Leavitt’s moving graphic memoir Tangles, published by Jonathan Cape, chronicles how Alzheimer’s disease transformed her mother, and those around her, forever. Nicola Streeten’s Billy, Me and You is a retrospective reflection of the experience of losing her two year old child thirteen years ago. In this fascinating conversation, they talk about both their books, share their experiences and discuss the use of comics to address such emotional subjects.
The Orbiting Pod, ably hosted by Camila at Orbital Comics, recorded the whole thing for your listening pleasure.
This is an enhanced podcast, with embedded images accompanying the audio. It’s best viewed on itunes or quicktime.
I've read this book repeatedly since it landed through my letter box. I've cried, laughed and often found myself nodding in agreement while thinking 'that's so true'. Billy, Me & You is extraordinarily unflinching and honest as Nicola reflects on the grieving process with compassion, humour and humility. This is a novel that will resonate with anyone who has experienced the devastating loss of someone they love.
Streeten's honesty at revealing some of her less generous thoughts, along with her sense of humour, manage to keep this sensitive material far from grim, while remaining extremely moving. I see this book in the same revolutionary vein [as punk rock], its artwork not seeking to soothe the reader with beautiful images, but rewarding with its raw emotion, and an ultimately uplifting message, those who can look beyond aesthetic orthodoxy .
Read Nicola's interview for online comics magazine Sequential Highway, about the process of writing Billy, Me & You.