My Name Is Leon, by Kit de Waal, is a poignant, honest, deeply moving tale of a child in care told from his point of view. Leon is a mixed race nine year old who enjoys playing with his action men, watching ‘The Dukes of Hazard’ and riding his bike. He lives with his mum, Carol, but is often left with their neighbour, Tina. Carol is twenty-five years old and suffers from depression.
The book opens with the birth of Leon’s little brother, Jake, who is blonde haired, blue eyed and pale skinned like their mum. Leon adores his little brother but sometimes gets angry when Carol expects him to care for the baby while she goes out or takes to her bed. Things come to a head when Jake is four months old and Tina reports their situation to social services. Leon and Jake are put in emergency foster care with an older lady, Maureen, who been fostering kids for years.
At Maureen’s Leon and Jake are kept clean and clothed, fed well and given toys. Leon wants to return to his beloved mum, or have her come live here, but she has disappeared. A decision is made to put Jake up for adoption. A white baby is desirable; an older, coloured boy is not.
Maureen is doing her best to support Leon but then she too becomes ill and he is sent to live with her sister, Sylvie. Everything Leon loves is being taken from him and he is angry. The adults put on their pretend faces and talk down to him but he is adept at eavesdropping and overhears snippets of what he believes to be the truth. He determines to take matters into his own hands.
The story is set in early 1980s England with its backdrop of racism, riots and a royal wedding. Each of the characters have their flaws and prejudices, but also compassion. They are presented rounded and real.
My heart hurt for Leon, for the changes forced on him through no fault of his own. Those charged with his care were doing their best but, seen through his eyes, this could never make things right. They had taken him from his mum and then given away his little brother. He felt alone and abandoned, unable to articulate the betrayal felt at the decisions being made.
Although dealing with difficult issues this is not a bleak book. Leon’s days are made better by chocolate biscuits, curly wurlies, by playing imaginative games and learning to grow vegetables at a local allotment. Here he meets Tufty, a coloured man who writes radical poetry and listens to reggae. He also meets Mr Devlin who isn’t what he seems.
The writing is succinct and candid, captivating and moving; in places it had me in tears. I loved this book and especially Leon. He is a fine boy in a flawed world, grieving and angry but coping as best he can. Ultimately that is all any of us can do.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Viking.