11. ‘My Name is Leon’ by Kit de Waal

I have an entire bookcase of books I haven’t read yet. I have dozens on my Kindle. I’ve even pre-ordered a couple more. But a few weeks ago I went into the library and came away with a haul of five books, and My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal was one of them.

To be fair, I’d heard a lot of hype around this book, and when I saw it in its beautiful hardback form I just couldn’t resist. Having read it, I think it is a very good book, but I didn’t completely fall in love with it.

my name is leon kit de waal

Leon is nine. He lives with his mother and his baby brother, Jake. Neither his nor Jake’s fathers are around, and his mother often finds it hard to cope. Eventually she stops getting out of bed, and when Leon goes to his neighbour to borrow some money, this sets in motion a chain of events involving social workers, fostering and adoption. What’s more, Leon is black and Jake is white, and they’re about to get very different treatment because of their skin colour.

I thought de Waal’s rendering of Leon’s nine-year-old voice was excellent. She really makes you see through the eyes of a child, but a child who understands more about what is going on around him than the adults would like to believe. As such, you get to feel what it is like to be patronised, to be ignored and, finally, to be listened to. It’s particularly fascinating to see his mother’s breakdown through his eyes, his protectiveness of her when social workers only have negative things to say, and his enduring hope that she will come back for him and Jake once she’s ‘better’.

Of course, race is a major issue in this book, and it becomes positively explosive towards the end. I thought it was very clever how de Waal bound up Leon’s personal story of difference with a wider racial movement; Leon discovers other black characters – adults – who are also fighting against injustice. While Leon deals with his anger by stealing things, he is also exposed to a variety of other possible reactions to inequality: pacifism, poetry and violence.

For me, the ending of this book didn’t quite work, possibly because the final line of the blurb is something like ‘…and a family where you least expect to find one’ (so, of course, I was looking out for that ‘unexpected’ family the whole way through). I thought that de Waal bound up the ending too neatly: compared to the action towards the end, which felt quite chaotic and rushed, the epilogue chapter made everything just a bit too idyllic to be believable. Still, I can’t fault this book for its efforts to expose the prejudices of a flawed system, or for its good-naturedness. My Name is Leon is both heartbreaking and heartwarming, and a very good read.

“I could be him, Mum. You could come back for me and, sometimes, I could be him.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Want to read it? You can buy My Name is Leon here.

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What do you think?