Billy and the Beast coverAdults will recognise the fairy tale structure and characteristics of Billy and the Beast while young readers will take to the likeable main character Billy and the animated illustrations that tell their own story.

  • Title: Billy and the Beast
  • Author: Nadia Shireen
  • Illustrator: Nadia Shireen
  • Reading level: 2-5 years
  • Date published: May 31, 2018
  • Publisher: Jonathan Cape, part of the VINTAGE division of Penguin Random House
  • Country: UK
  • Country printed in: China
  • Eco-friendly Printing: FSC MIX

There isn’t enough representation of ethnic minorities in children’s literature out of the big publishing market of the UK. In July, independent charity the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) said that only 4 percent of the children’s books published in the country in 2017 featured black or minority ethnic (BAME) characters, based on its ‘Reflecting Realities’ study. More woefully, the study found that only 1 percent of the books had a BAME main character. Even more despairing, CLPE’s study found that only 1 book featuring a BAME character was defined as ‘comedy’.

It goes to reason, then, that Nadia Shireen’s Billy and the Beast is a huge welcome. (Though I wouldn’t say it’s ‘comedy’, just a lot of fun!)

1.Safe structure for much-needed inclusion

The author adapts the time-tested fairy tale structure to introduce minority ethnic main character Billy, who encounters a beast that wants to eat up her animal friends. In the end, thanks to Billy’s quick thinking and various random items she stuffs in her afro, she outwits the villain and with the help of her animal friends, vanquishes the beast forever. Hurrah!

If you’re going to introduce a ‘new-look’ (i.e. under-represented ethnic) character to readers, then it’s a good idea to keep them to a familiar story structure with clear black-and-white lines (pun intended) of who’s good and who’s bad.

The author doesn’t forget to include repetitions of concepts/events and words that work really well to draw in young readers and will keep bringing them back to the story.

2. Animated illustrations

I will probably never stop saying this: I envy the author who can illustrate their own work. Nay, not envy, I am downright crazy jealous.

Nadia Shireen has brought to life a character and her cat sidekick that could translate into an animated series. (Aside: Billy reminds me of South Park’s Kenny when she has her hoodie on.) Think Peg + Cat and Dora the Explorer, both also with female main characters. However, Billy’s stories would need a much clearer structure for challenges and their resolutions, which both Peg + Cat and Dora do brilliantly, and with such simple aplomb.