Caring seems, to me, to be much more of a two-way street than it at first appears. I think even as a child I wanted to make sure that my Mum was happy and safe (obviously my actual actions didn’t always help her to feel that way – kids are also, for a lot of the time, selfish and thoughtless even before they get to the hormonal teen years). Many members of my family work in health and social care and in education and I’m pretty sure that the affection that the people they care for helps them get through some of the nastier days. Even in retail I have sometimes been very touched by the concern customers have shown for the health and well-being of staff in the shop. I know that things can go wrong – I watch the news – but on the whole I’m sure that the best carers are thought of with fondness and respect by their clients. Although, of course, when those clients are children things can go a little wrong.
The central character in Kit de Waal’s My Name is Leon is a child who finds himself in the care system in the early 1980s. His mother seems to suffer from serious post-natal mental health problems after his perfect little brother Jake is born and Leon – despite being nine years old – does his best to care for them both. When she finally suffers a breakdown Leon and Jake find themselves with a foster-carer called Mo – she is a good carer, loving, understanding, strict when it’s needed and willing to let bad behaviour slide when it is obviously the result of fear or misunderstanding. This could have been a happy time for the boys but Leon is still worried about his Mum (he’s a kid – he’s not going to stop loving his mother just because she is ill…) and then the unthinkable happens and he is separated from his brother too. Jake and Leon have different dads: Leon is a mixed-race pre-teen and Jake is a perfect, and eminently adoptable, white baby.
Oh my goodness, this book is such a heart-breaker! I was so sad for Leon – despite being a well-grown lad who is often mistaken for a much older child he is only 9 and he can’t understand why he is not allowed to carry on looking after Jake and his Mum. He is angry and confused and so determined that he is going to mend his broken family. But other characters also brought a lump to my throat – Leon’s Mum, Carol, is a hugely troubled person and I really wanted to make things better for her (her shortcomings are just as much the result of her illness as of her life choices – you can’t help but want to help her it seems) and Mo the foster carer is brilliant but has health problems. And you get to know all these people so well you are as concerned about their well-being as if they were your own friends and family. I even worried about baby Jake: like Leon, I’m sure he must be missing his brother.
Of course this is not just a tear-jerker – it is also very funny. Leon is a bright boy but, like many nine year olds, doesn’t really understand the way adults work. This is a large part of the humour (and, of course, the sadness). In addition to this there is a sense of anger at the injustices which the boys, and Leon in particular, experience largely because of the colour of their skins. Add the fact that book reaches its climax in the summer of 1981 and I had fear in the emotional mix too.
This is a wonderful, sad, funny and scary book. It has made me think about cared-for children and race, parenthood and gardening and, most importantly, about a very endearing boy whose name is Leon.