Leo: A Ghost Story Subverting Cultural Stereotypes
By Maria Popova
“Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” Rilke wrote in contemplating how mortality expands our aliveness. That, perhaps, is why ghost tales are among the most universal and perennial fixtures of all mythologies and storytelling traditions — the very notion of a ghost welcomes a point of presence with life and death simultaneously. That most such stories cast ghosts as fearsome speaks to our lamentable tendency to approach the unfamiliar and the unknown — death, of course, being the ultimate unknown — with fear rather than with openminded, openhearted curiosity. Rilke knew this, writing in a letter that “fear of the unexplainable has not only impoverished our inner lives, but also diminished relations between people.” A generation later, Anaïs Nin observed that “it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar.”
In Leo: A Ghost Story (public library), beloved children’s book author Mac Barnett and illustrator Christian Robinson subvert the many dimensions of this human tendency in a heartening parable of seeing through difference, meeting the unfamiliar with unflinching friendliness, and dignifying the reality of the other.
We meet little Leo, a warmhearted ghost who has been living in a great old house on the edge of the city for many years, spending his days reading and drawing.
But his bibliophilic idyll changes the day a new family buys the house and moves in.
At first excited for the company and eager to be “a good ghost,” Leo tries to welcome them by making mint tea and honey toast.
But the mysterious treats alarm the family and send them running for help, eventually enlisting “a scientist, a clergyman, and a psychic to get rid of the ghost.”
Disheartened by being this unwelcome in his own home, Leo decides to try living as a roaming ghost and heads to the city.
Leo saw the city and the people who lived there.
Nobody saw Leo.
Disoriented by the urban chaos, he tries to ask the policewoman for directions — but she walks right through him.
At last, Leo meets a little named Jane. Miraculously, Jane — who we’re told is wearing a crown — sees Leo and invites him to play Knights of the Round Table, then promptly knights him and introduces her to her imaginary friends at the roundtable.
But we never see the crown — a subtle bow before the mutual dignity of recognition, for Leo, too, sees something in Jane that others don’t.
When Jane’s mother beckons her back home, Leo is delighted to have met someone who could see him, but his heart sinks upon realizing that Jane perceives him as another imaginary friend, once again having his reality yanked away from him.
Still, the two reconvene after dinner for another playdate of slaying imaginary dragons with their make-believe swords. But just as they retire for bedtime, Leo hears rustling — it’s a burglar sneaking through the window.
He, too, walks right through Leo, despite the boy’s protective protestations.
Suddenly, Leo gets an idea — he tosses a bed sheet over himself and flies at the thief, startling him and causing him to drop the silverware, then chasing him into the main closet and locking him in until the police arrives.
“Later Leo would not be able to say where the idea came from,” writes Barnett — another wink at subverting cultural tropes and using them to one’s advantage, for the idea came, of course, from the familiar depiction of the ghost as a sheet-draped invisible presence. One can’t help but appreciate this wonderfully subtle reminder that children absorb the countless ideas permeating our culture. The positive manifestation of this is the creative act itself — we create by borrowing and combining ideas we’ve accumulated by the very act of being alive and attentive to the world. The negative manifestation is how stereotypes proliferate, planting seeds for ideas that seem to come out of nowhere, germinating our unconscious social biases.
It’s worth noting that Leo: A Ghost Story offers a magnificent counterpoint to this proliferation. In a cultural landscape where only 3% of children’s books feature characters of color and many continue to purvey limiting gender stereotypes, here’s a story where a little black girl is the knight in shining armor, the one who confers power and dignity upon Leo’s reality, and where a woman cop catches the bad guy in the end. It’s also a story that treats the difficult subject of death with levity and openness, adding to the most unusual and wonderful children’s books about making sense of mortality.
Published December 14, 2015