Being a kid is like having two permanent police officers watching you all the time – even when you’re going to the bathroom. At least that’s how it feels to Billy March. He’s been grounded for 63% of the past month. Every time Billy almost gets his parents’ trust back, his mind wanders off, and he causes another disaster! Now Mom and Dad are threatening to send Billy to a psychologist. They may even make him take brain drugs! But deep down, Billy worries that Dad wishes he had a different son. Maybe he doesn’t belong in this family at all. But maybe, just maybe, talking to a “shrink” won’t be as terrible as Billy thinks.
In Billy March, Stephanie Guerra hands us one energetic, impulsive, frustrating, and endearing 10-year-old who is doing the best he can even though it sure doesn’t seem like it. Guerra’s text tells Billy’s funny and poignant story, enriched by illustrator James Davies’ whimsical graphics that plunge us straight into Billy’s wild imagination. Billy the Kid is Not Crazy is coming to book shelves in October.
Where does Billy come from?
Billy’s a product of my life-long love of characters with wild imaginations and frequent misbehavior. Anne of Green Gables, Pippi Longstocking, Toad from Wind in the Willows, and more recently Joey Pigza are among my favorites. I love how porous reality and fantasy can be in childhood, and I think some children have a special gift for slipping past that boundary and creating endless diversion for themselves. Billy came about because I wanted to write a child who was so enmeshed in his fantasies that the world became a stage for his imagination—resulting in lots of trouble, of course.
What influences from your life found their way into Billy’s story?
Billy gets in trouble so frequently that his parents take him to see a child psychiatrist. I kept those scenes brief—I didn’t want them to take over the story—but they’re important. My mother is a child psychologist, and I grew up with lots of dinner-table talk about the therapy process. My mother sometimes shared the struggles that young clients were going through (without revealing their names, of course). She had tremendous sympathy and love for the kids she worked with, and she didn’t believe in such a thing as a lost cause. She is a strong supporter of therapy without drugs when possible, and that certainly worked its way into Billy’s story.
One of the most important things I learned from my mother is that therapy is not for “bad” kids. Lots of children have to visit a psychologist or psychiatrist at some point, whether for testing, help with a temporary problem, or support with something long-term. And there are times in all of our lives when we could use someone to talk to.
James Davies’ illustrations add both humor and poignancy as they take us deep into Billy’s psyche. Tell us about your process for blending the text and graphics.
I’m delighted with how Davies’ illustrations turned out. He’s a very talented artist, and he intuited and added to the whimsical spirit of my characters with style and humor. Our process was simple: I described the basic content of each cartoon strip, including action and dialogue. Davies then translated the scene into cartoon strip form. I love the funny details in his settings and the way he brought Billy and Keenan alive with dynamic body language.
Our readers will be interested in your teaching with young women incarcerated at the King County Juvenile Detention Center. Please describe what you’ve learned about your own writing through that work.
Working with the teens at the correctional facility has impacted my own writing tremendously. I pick up rhythms of language, characters, and culture in a way that I’d never do otherwise. The girls have brought home to me the power of writing to heal, vent, and connect. They’ve showed me what writing in a community looks and feels like. I’m moved by how they support each other and listen respectfully and lovingly to sometimes very painful memoir pieces. Writing as community has been an important lesson for me; I’ve always written in a vacuum.
Can you give us a hint about what’s on your middle grade horizon?
I’m revising the final draft of a middle-grade/YA crossover about a fourteen-year-old Italian American boy navigating life in Mob-infested Brooklyn of the eighties. The working title is BROOKLYN SOLDIERS. I think older middle-grade readers will love that one. I also have two young adult novels coming out in 2015 (OUT OF ACES and sequel) which are keeping me busy.
After that . . . I have a weakness for Pilkey-style potty humor. I’m not sure I could pull it off, but I may try just for fun. During my MFA, I wrote a middle-grade novella about farts coming to life on Halloween. I never showed it to anyone, least of all my professors, who were literary novelists for adults. But the story has lingered in the back of my mind all these years.
What’s something about you that we wouldn’t guess if we met you in person?
My sister and I are planning to film a series of videos for YouTube in which we reenact some famous Groucho and Harpo Marx scenes (and invent some new ones). I’m Harpo. I really want to do this, although it may seriously embarrass my husband.
Stay tuned for more great stories from Stephanie Guerra (and keep your eye on YouTube!). In addition to writing for middle grade and YA readers, Guerra teaches courses in writing and children’s literature at Seattle University, which is where our paths first crossed. Read more about her writing instruction with teens in detention — it’s an amazing story! And visit Stephanie at her website stephanieguerra.com.
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Billy the Kid is Not Crazy!
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Katherine Schlick Noe teaches beginning and experienced teachers at Seattle University. Her debut novel, Something to Hold (Clarion, 2011) won the 2012 Washington State Scandiuzzi Children’s Book Award for middle grade/young adult and was named a 2012 Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People. Visit her at http://katherineschlicknoe.com.