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Helen Rutter on How Her Son Lenny Inspired The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh

Posted on 28th February 2021 by Mark Skinner

The subject matter of Helen Rutter's big-hearted and side-splitting children's novel The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh lay very close to the stand-up comic's heart. In this exclusive piece, she reveals how her incredible son Lenny inspired our Children's Book of the Month for March.

My book The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh is about an eleven year old boy called Billy Plimpton who dreams of becoming a stand up comedian. There is just one thing that’s getting in his way - his stammer. He can’t imagine ever having the confidence to stand on a stage when he finds it hard to get to the end of a sentence. We follow Billy as he starts secondary school and tries desperately to fit in. Throughout the book he begins to realise that maybe he doesn't need to change who he is after all.

I started writing the book at the kitchen table, in between school drop off and pick up, whilst watching the kids at their karate class or sitting in the car during a rainy football practise. At the end of the day I read each new chapter out loud to my son Lenny before bed. It was important for me to gauge his opinion early on, as the story is inspired by him.

As a toddler we thought nothing of the way Lenny spoke, if anything it was ‘cute’ and seemed as though he just had so much to say. As a parent I’ve often thought back to when it changed from being a cute quirk and started becoming more challenging for him, differentiating him from the other kids as someone who stood out. We’ve had many theories about what (if anything) made his stammer get stronger, ranging from: our daughter finding her (rather loud and dominant) voice at age two, having a teacher who he was terrified of, and his best friend's Dad suddenly dying. All of these things were happening around the same time and that's when we started seeing his stammer become harder for him to cope with. He began fighting against his words and became increasingly frustrated with himself for not being able to speak in the way he wanted to.

Lenny had never seen a character like him in literature, he reads a lot and the only time he ever found the word ‘stammer’ was when it was used negatively. He once read the phrase ‘He stammered like an idiot’, he told me that it had made him feel bad and asked if that was an ‘OK thing to write?’ This, along with both kids and adults responding to him with mixed levels of patience and understanding were all inspirations for what Billy goes through in the book. Seeing how Lenny continued to raise his hand and make his voice heard throughout his life, regardless of his stammer, has been incredibly powerful and it’s no wonder really that it inspired me to write my first book!

I have always written, whether it was (terrible) poetry, diaries or plays. I was an actress for many years and began writing in a more focused way when Lenny was born. He inspired yet another piece - my first self penned comedy show about motherhood, which I performed in a room above a pub in front of mums and their newborn babies! I then went on to write and perform shows at the Edinburgh Festival with my comedian husband Rob Rouse. I found myself moving between drama and comedy and realised that my ideal was a perfect balance between the two. When I had the idea for the character of Billy Plimpton I knew that it was not an Edinburgh show but that it was a children’s book and it was one that I felt I HAD to write. I wanted to write a story for Lenny that starred a character just like him.  It also offered me the perfect opportunity to attempt the balance of humour and heart that I had been seeking in my other work. 

Lenny’s now thirteen years old and his stammer comes and goes. He has been to two different speech therapists and has found ways of managing it. He mentions it occasionally in passing, ‘I wonder if I’ll stammer when I’m a Dad?’ or ‘I’ve not noticed my stammer for a while Mum, have you?’ or ‘I used to hate reading out loud, but now I don’t mind it.’ The difference now when we talk about it is the gentleness with which he treats himself. He’s no longer fighting it or embarrassed and I’m no longer scared for him, for what it may mean for him. We’ve all just accepted it as a very small part of his story.

Maybe that’s why it arrived as an idea when it did. It was no longer defining him/us and with that came a lightness that allowed me to see it for the unique (but hopefully universal) and inspiring story that it is.

To be chosen as Waterstones Children's Book of the Month is a dream come true. Me and Lenny are both thrilled to send Billy off out into the world to find his audience.

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