Leo is the kind of ghost I like. He loves to read and draw and makes mint tea and honey toast. He’s a sensitive soul, mindful of the feelings of those around him. Most people can’t see Leo; Jane can. Jane is the best kind of girl. She’s got a brilliant imagination, is oblivious to prescribed gender roles and can slay a dragon with the best of them. What’s not to like? Together Leo and Jane are a winsome duo.
Leo: a ghost story is a deceptively simple tale, but at its heart is a strong message about acceptance and open-mindedness. Mixed gender, interracial, interdimensional — however you would like to label Leo and Jane’s relationship, it is outwardly defined by difference. While others in the story meet difference with fear and hostility, Jane and Leo see in each other what others cannot. What brings them together is a willingness to see, to recognise and admire the reality of the other. This act of recognition acknowledges, and therefore dignifies. For Jane this means being King and commander of a band of (imaginary) knighted animals (“‘And finally,’ said Jane, ‘This is Sir Squawks –‘ Leo interrupted: ‘A loyal bird.’ Jane frowned. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Sir Squawks is a giant hamster.’ ‘Oh,’ said Leo. “I, well, I’m not wearing my glasses.’ Jane squinted at the chair. “I guess,’ she said.”); for Leo this means personhood (“Leo looked down at the carpet. ‘Jane, I told you a lie. I am a ghost. I said I was your imaginary friend, but I’m not. I am just your real friend.’ ‘Oh!’ said Jane. ‘Well that’s even better.'”).
At the end of the book, Leo foils the plans of a “sneak thief” attempting to burgle Jane’s house. He dons a bed sheet, chases the frightened baddie into a closet, and locks him inside, thereby saving the day. Mac Barnett (with his typical combination of subtlety and humour) starts this scene by mentioning, “Later Leo would not be able to say where the idea came from”. Leo is seemingly, completely unaware of the most prevalent visual ghost trope — you know the one — a Casper-like, disembodied, white sheet hovering in the dark. That this cultural construct of what a ghost is “supposed to” look like escapes Leo is important, because it points to this book’s wider commentary — we don’t have to perpetuate society’s “supposed tos”. No matter whether the construct revolves around how a girl or a person of a certain ethnicity (or a ghost) is supposed to look or think or act, if instead we allow ourselves to be guided by clear eyes and open hearts, we have everything to gain.
Beautifully detailed artwork from Christian Robinson (in an interesting palate of blues and greys) and rich, playful language from Mac Barnett make this book stand out. Unexpected and unlike anything I’ve read before, I found this book full of quirk and delight.
Leo by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Christian Robinson, published by Chronicle Books (£10.99)