My Name is Leon

A brother chosen. A brother left behind. And a family where you’d least expect to find one.

Leon is nine, and has a perfect baby brother called Jake. They have gone to live with Maureen, who has fuzzy red hair like a halo, and a belly like Father Christmas. But the adults are speaking in low voices, and wearing Pretend faces. They are threatening to give Jake to strangers. Since Jake is white and Leon is not.

As Leon struggles to cope with his anger, certain things can still make him smile – like Curly Wurlys, riding his bike fast downhill, burying his hands deep in the soil, hanging out with Tufty (who reminds him of his dad), and stealing enough coins so that one day he can rescue Jake and his mum.

Evoking a Britain of the early eighties, My Name is Leon is a heart-breaking story of love, identity and learning to overcome unbearable loss. Of the fierce bond between siblings. And how – just when we least expect it – we manage to find our way home.


My Name is Leon is a beautifully written book which is heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time.  It’s hard to believe it is Kit de Waal’s debut novel.  It is set in London in the early 1980/81 against a backdrop of racial tension and violence and a royal wedding. Kit de Waal captures the era very well and there are subtle references that anchor the story to the early 1980s.

When I first started reading it I feared that things would not turn out well 9 year old Leon who had taken on the responsibility of caring for, as best as he could, his baby brother Jake and his mother who had mental health issues and just couldn’t cope on her own, frequently going out and leaving Leon to look after the baby and himself. Eventually Social Services become involved after a concerned neighbour contacts them.

It was hard for Leon when he and his brother were placed in emergency foster care. He missed his mum and his toys, but then to make matters worse it was decided that it would be better for Jake if he were adopted.  Jake is a white baby and Leon is not. That meant it would just be Maureen the foster carer and Leon.

I like the way the story is told through the eyes of Leon. He sometimes behaves badly, having major strops and even stealing small amounts of money and various items. You hear his thoughts before his frustration and anger get out of control and he acts out. From a 9 year old’s point of view, and given his situation, it seems quite reasonable. Leon doesn’t like the social workers. He doesn’t trust them; they have fake smiles and don’t always mean what they say. He listens behind doors when they talk to Maureen and Maureen talks to her sister and he doesn’t like what is being said about his mother. However Maureen is an older experienced foster carer and she and Leon generally get on well.

All the way through the book Leon is squirrelling away money and collecting things so that he can go and find his brother and his mother and look after them.

As if all these separations weren’t bad enough, Maureen becomes seriously ill and is taken into hospital. It’s then decided he will stay with her sister Sylvia. This means another change of school.

I think this would traumatise any child. I kept thinking about my own grandson who is 9 but I just couldn’t imagine him in Leon’s situation. At times Leon seems older than his years carrying burdens he really shouldn’t have.

After he is given a bike by the social worker he goes out more and, unknown to Sylvia, spends a lot of time at the allotments. He meets various characters, one being Tufty who is black and reminds Leon of his dad. Another important one is Mr Devlin an older man. Although the men don’t see eye to eye they both help Leon (eventually), encouraging him to grow things.

Even so, Leon witnesses incidents that take place at the allotments including an acquaintance of Tufty’s being dragged off by 4 policemen.

You wonder if things will ever get better for Leon. By this time he just wants Maureen to get out of hospital so he can go back and live with her although he still wants to find his brother and his mother. Unfortunately he overhears part of Sylvia’s telephone conversation and jumps to a conclusion, and decides he has to run away to find them.

It gets worse. He gets caught up in the street riots between civilians and Police and sees people getting hurt.

Oh dear. You would think this book is all doom and gloom. It isn’t. I really liked it probably because it is so well written and I found the characters interesting and very believable. The book isn’t just about the huge upheavals in Leon’s life.  The story is enriched by all the other little things in between and the people he encounters. For all his troubles Leon comes across as a likeable young boy.  You really want him to enjoy a happier, more settled future.

An excellent, thought-provoking but enjoyable book.

My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal will be published on 2 June 2016 by Viking.

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Filed under contemporary fiction, family issues

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