Billy, Me and You by Nicola Streeten

8th Apr 2014

This début graphic novel is a groundbreaking and moving memoir dealing with the death of a child.

Nicola Streeten’s son, Billy, was two when he died. His heart problems had been diagnosed just ten days earlier, and he didn’t recover from the surgery.

His mother started drawing humorous pictures to help her deal with the situation. An EFL teacher at the time, Nicola Streeten eventually decided to change career and become an illustrator.

She also kept a diary, but was unable to revisit it until thirteen years later, when she began translating the experience into this graphic novel. Written from a ‘healed’ perspective, it is refreshingly honest and insightful on the subject of bereavement.

The book begins with the day of Billy’s death, and Streeten’s reaction to it. At first she avoids crying in public, citing the social taboo of displaying grief in front of others.

She goes through a phase of bringing up the issue in everyday situations. A cashier asks, “Would you like a bag?” and she answers, “No, my child died.”

A tragi-comic series of panels shows her doing the same in various scenarios. Another amusing section shows Streeten scoring people based on their reactions e.g. “I can imagine what you’re going through (-20/10).” Her favourite responses are from some of her students, despite their limited English.

Later, she is surprised by her own reaction to others’ bereavement. Despite her strong opinions on the matter, she discovers she doesn’t know what to say.

At one point Streeten thinks she has passed through all of the stages of grief, according to an oft-quoted theory. Then she returns to the anger phase, and realises it’s not so straightforward.At one point Streeten thinks she has passed through all of the stages of grief, according to an oft-quoted theory. Then she returns to the anger phase, and realises it’s not so straightforward.

Nicola Streeten avoids the cliché‎s surrounding death, and questions the polite lingo so often used: “Why do some people say they’ve ‘lost’ someone… when they mean that person is DEAD?”

As well as the fraught communications she has with others who can’t imagine her pain, she also shows the difficulties faced in her relationship with her partner, John. Luckily they are also helped by having one another to share in their grief.

The drawing style is sketchy, lively and deceptively simple. On first look, the unpolished art may be off-putting to some, combined with the difficult subject matter.

But the style works very well with the theme and it’s easy to become absorbed instantly. It can easily be read in one sitting, alternating between laughter and tears.

There are several photos in the book, including John’s pictures of Billy’s things taken when they arrived home from the hospital. Streeten also shares some happy memories of her son and his obsession with transport (far beyond the average two-year-old’s interest in the matter).

Streeten’s development as a comic artist also features; over time she becomes interested in graphic novels and questions the gender imbalance in their representation. She started the brilliant Laydeez Do Comics with Sarah Lightman in 2009.

She then decided to create this memoir, finally ready to consult her old diary. The results are groundbreaking – it’s the first graphic memoir by a British woman published by a mainstream publisher (the fantastic Myriad Editions) and was highly commended by the British Medical Association.

Billy, Me & You is incredibly moving yet not unbearably sad; it covers everything from grief and despair to humour, recovery and hope.