Leon is eight and three-quarters, and he has a new baby brother. Though Leon’s age, living arrangements, attitude, and size change throughout the book, his name and his love for his brother do not. Kit de Waal’s My Name is Leon tells the story of a young black boy in 1970’s England whose life until eight has been about taking care of his mother, and now his baby brother. When his mother descends into mental illness his insular world is upended, and he and his brother Jake enter the foster system, catapulting them into a cycle of change and uncertainty.
I picked up My Name is Leon never having heard of it, compelled only by a discounted price on iBooks and an intriguing description. Books told from a child’s perspective tend to appeal to me, as do stories about foster care and adoption — two things I feel passionately about. My Name is Leon is a triumph of both categories. Leon is nuanced and realistically portrayed throughout the time we get to know him, from age eight to eleven. Through Leon, de Waal explores tough topics like systemic racism, motherhood, and mental illness with a fresh, unhardened perspective that challenges the reader to set aside politics and experience the world on a micro level, through one boy’s eyes.
de Waal creates fully dimensional characters who garner sympathy because they are like people we know in real life — complicated, clumsy, occasionally careless, but most of the time good-intentioned. Hers is a rare novel that tackles tough and relevant topics but still leaves the reader feeling uplifted and hopeful rather than jaded. My Name is Leon is heartfelt, emotionally stirring, and clever, and burrows into your heart to stay long after the last page is read. I look forward to whatever Kit de Waal produces next, and hope you will give this book a chance to affect your heart the way it affected mine.
“… my job never ends because I look after you even when you’re not here because I think about you and I care for you and I love you. You and all the children I’ve ever looked after. Do you understand, Leon?”
“Right. Now listen carefully because I want you to understand something and I don’t say this to all the children because it’s not always true but with you it’s true, so you have to believe it. And when you believe it you will stop grinding your teeth and I might be able to get five minutes’ sleep before sunrise. All right?”
“It will be all right.”