Leon and the Spitting Image by Allen Kurzweil

by Kelly Lynn Thomas

Principal Trunchbull, step aside.

When I saw this (audio) book on sale for $2 at my local library, the cover intrigued me, so I bought it knowing only that it was a young adult title, and based on the giant cat’s eye and what looked like a witch’s leg on the cover, probably fantasy.

The opening scenes, rich with detail and life (of the human and animal variety), also seemed to lend themselves to the beginning of an urban fantasy, or a story in which Leon, the titular character, might find himself lost in another world or dimension.

The book seemed to much fun to be ordinary.

So I was surprised to find a story about a fourth grader struggling to refine his “troubling” lack of fine motor skills at his private school that has a peculiar, but mundane, motto: “Nimble fingers make nimble minds.”

Leon’s fourth-grade teacher Ms. Hagmeyer dresses very much like a witch (it is her leg on the front cover), and designs her class around sewing and the medieval “Seven Stitches of Virtue,” which is a veritable nightmare for fine-motor-skill challenged Leon.

His best friends P.W. and Lily-Matisse hate the “Hag” and making stuffed “animiles”—they don’t even get to keep them!—as much as Leon does, but at least they can meet her strict S.P.I. (stitches per inch!) standards. Poor Leon is last in the class.

Almost immediately I wished I could help Leon in some way. Sewing is one of my hobbies, so while listening to the book in my car I almost found myself telling Leon how to do this stitch or that, and thinking things like, “It’s easier if you thread a needle this way, Leon! I know you can do it!”

Leon and his friends struggle and struggle through the year. Leon despairs of ever finishing his “Master Piece,” the Hag’s final sewing project of the year, until the Hag herself gives him a jolt of inspiration.

He creates a miniature Ms. Hagmeyer, complete with a cloak with animal eyeball clasp, liver-colored panty-hose and black wig.

And then he discovers the doll can control his teacher.

This turn of events, halfway through the book, took me utterly by surprise, as had the non-magical beginning. Truthfully I felt a little betrayed; Kurzweil sets the book up as a charming, quirky, weird, but still not-magical story, and here all of a sudden there’s some magic.

The book takes a completely different direction from there, away from Leon’s struggles at school and toward the three friends trying to use the doll to get revenge on the school bully. At first I was disappointed. I wanted so much for Leon to succeed at the Hag’s ridiculous projects and one-up her that I felt the bully problem was merely secondary.

But, Leon had already endeared himself to me too much to make me stop reading/listening, so I stuck it out.

Though the book seemed to go on forever, in the end, it was well worth it. In the end, Leon does one-up Ms. Hagmeyer, but she’s got a surprise or two of her own that makes everyone in the class feel a little silly for hating her so much.

All the characters grow, an important hallmark of good fiction in my opinion, and Leon proves that fourth graders aren’t entirely self-centered, after all, and we can do an awful lot if we put our hearts and minds to it.

Kelly Lynn Thomas is a writer obsessed with storytelling, tea, and Star Wars. Her day job is newspaper editor, but fiction and travel writing are her first loves. Read more at http://kellylynnthomas.com

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