The Truth About Leo by David Yelland

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The Truth About Leo by David Yelland

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: A very affecting book about loss of a parent and the effect of alcoholism on children, facing some hard truths and illustrating the deep taboos surrounding the issue. An engaging central character
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: April 2010
Publisher: Puffin
ISBN: 0141330031

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Leo lives inside his own head for much of the time. You can't really blame him. He's always tired for a start. That's because he's often up early, tidying up the house after one of his father's rampages. His father drinks too much, you see, and sometimes he smashes up the house. Leo can't risk this being discovered because his father's the only person he's got since his mother died of cancer. He misses her like crazy, and he's afraid he'll be taken into care if anyone finds out about his dad's drinking.

Of course, being so tired and distracted all the time means Leo doesn't always pay attention in school, and that leaves him vulnerable to the bullying Mr Manders who likes nothing better than to humiliate the hapless children in his class. But Leo does have Flora, who sticks up for him, and seems to understand, just a little bit. Things need to change, Leo knows that, but how can he tell? How can he risk losing his dad now he's all Leo's got left?

Many more children are dealing with alcoholic parents than we care to imagine. David Yelland, a former editor of The Sun, knows it only too well. He himself is a recovering alcoholic. His wife died of breast cancer. And his son, Max, had to deal with a single parent that drank too much. Yelland has said, I am not the father in this novel – he is the man I nearly was - and this intimacy with the subject comes through very clearly in his book. We see Leo's heartbreaking isolation. He's grieving for a lost mother and a lost father, even though only one parent has died. We see his need as he tries desperately to cover up for his father's drinking, keeping the house clean and tidy and trying to hide his bottles even when the atmosphere at home turns violent. And we see his inevitable retreat from such a chaotic and troubling world as he lives inside happier daydreams and fails to pay attention at school.

It's very uncomfortable, but it has an unmistakable authenticity about it - and it shows very clearly how reaching out is the only real choice. Leo's pain recedes as he finds Flora understands his situation only too well. His headmistress frightens him with officialdom, but deep down he knows life at home can't go on as it is. There are some truly touching scenes involving Leo himself, but also the other adults in the story - including his grandmother, who has reasons of her own for putting her head in the sand.

I'm all for books that break damaging taboos and I think The Truth About Leo is a wonderful and valuable example. It made me cry, but it also made me feel very strongly that it was doing the right thing by opening this subject up for discussion - to children as well as adults. Hopefully, it will make at least one child feel less alone.

Um... but... um.... when someone is writing bravely about taboo subjects, it's very hard to criticise without sounding churlish and, well, somewhat up yourself - but I'm going to give it a go. The Truth About Leo isn't perfect. Leo is at primary school, but the book itself is a "proper" novel and is going to be read by tweens, teens and adults. The adults and older teens won't mind, but children generally like their central characters a year or two older than themselves. There's a minor mismatch there that just doesn't sit quite right and makes things a little bit awkward. There's a subplot involving the Prime Minister and a mean teacher - it reminded me of Love Actually and while I think the sad and difficult parts of the book needed balancing out, I just thought this was silly. Again, it's an idea that younger children might buy sitting in a book pitched at tweens and above. The horrid teacher is just so ludicrously horrid that he lacks even an ounce of credibility as a character.

There. I said it all. The Truth About Leo isn't perfect by any means. And now I feel horribly guilty and am cringing, because it truly has some wonderful moments. It engages with its difficult subject matter in a genuinely open, honest, personal and taboo-busting way. I love it for that and forgive its faults completely. I'm sure you will too.

My thanks to the good people at Puffin for sending the book.

Luke and Jon by Robert Williams is for slightly older children, but also features a grieving family and a father who turns dangerously to drink. Again for older ones, Killing God by Kevin Brooks sees Dawn doing her best while her mother spends life in an alcoholic haze. Shine by Kate Maryon is for younger readers and also features parental sins which a child must keep secret - this time, it's stealing.

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