A gorgeously illustrated historical graphic novel based on a real person who, defying gender expectations, left home in search of adventure and a more authentic life.
It was April 1, 1873. In the middle of the night, Sarah Jane spotted flares off the coast of her island home. She woke her father, who quickly gathered their neighbours. Over the next several hours, rescuers pulled 429 traumatized survivors out of the wreckage of the SS Atlantic, a White Star Line passenger steamship. But 535 people didn't survive, including Bill, a sailor.
However, this story isn't about death it's about living. Swapping out their dress for a pair of pants, Bill had run away from New Jersey in search of adventure, anonymity, and a place in the world. When they were hired to work on a cargo steamer, everything seemed to fall into place but it didn't take long for Bill to realize they were really just searching for a place where they could be themselves.
Over four years of heavy research, debut graphic novelist Lynette Richards painstakingly gathered details of this story from a range of historic newspapers from all over the world. By taking a creative nonfiction approach to storytelling, Richards was able to speak to the courage that readers will recognize as necessary for self-discovery.
In Call Me Bill, Richards shares the remarkable life story of a tenacious adventurer who took huge risks to live an authentic life that others would have had difficulty imagining. Set against the backdrop of the worst maritime disaster before the Titanic, this story is an exploration of identity and radical imagination that echoes across generations.
About the authors
Emily Burton has a PhD in Canadian History (Dalhousie University, 2016) that included a Gilder Lehrman Fellowship with the New York Historical Society. She contributed to the Canadian component of the International Exhibition: Hello Sailor! Gay Life on the Ocean Wave for the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, and has also collaborated with the S.S. Atlantic Interpretation Center in Terence Bay. She has worked as an Oral Historian at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 since 2014.
"Visually inventive and eloquently written, Call Me Bill i is a dazzling story of a short life lived daringly." - Emma Donoghue, author of Room and The Lotterys Plus One
"Richards's writing is engaging and never preachy, making points about gender expression and identity that fit naturally within the adventure. Armstrong identifies as Bill when wearing "pantaloons," but otherwise still goes by their birth name of Maggie. It is easy to see Armstrong as an inspiring model for teenagers that don't want to conform to gender roles Maggie/Bill is the type of person who will fight bullies but also muse poetically about nature, and still have time to chat kindly with children onboard the ship." - Starred Review, Quill & Quire
"Richards's thorough research - drawn from local records, community history, and historical and modern publications, which feature as excerpts throughout - help explore what Billy's life might have been like in the late 19th century; while the excerpts focus primarily on Billy's gender identity, Richards portrays Billy as a person with a complex and rich life who just wanted to be accepted as he was." - Publishers Weekly
"Richards' elegant brush work and use of ink wash paints a highly evocative picture of the time period. She manages to convey the romance, triumph, and tragedy of the too-short life of this remarkable figure, all with an admirably light touch." - Josh Rosen, illustrator of The Good Fight
"The strength of Call Me Bill lies in the gentle appeal to readers to remain empathetic and proud of their own backgrounds, whatever they may be. Our attention is drawn to the importance of documenting these stories in the present so that their legacies can join a long history of other unseen individuals who continue to dream of resisting social norms." - Young Adulting