Posted Thursday 20 July 2023
Acclaimed author Kit de Waal has been awarded an honorary degree by Kingston University in recognition of her outstanding contribution to literature.
The award-winning novelist, whose books explore the foster care system and social issues, shot to fame after the release of her debut novel, My Name is Leon. Set in the early 1980s, it tells the moving story of a vulnerable young boy who is taken into care and separated from his brother after his mother can no longer look after them.
The book became an international bestseller, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award for 2017. It was later adapted into a major BBC television drama in 2022. Before beginning her career as an author, de Waal worked for 15 years in criminal and family law and has also sat on adoption panels and advised social services on the care of foster children.
My Name is Leon was selected for Kington University's Big Read in 2017, an annual shared reading initiative for new students. As part of the Big Read project, the author took part in question and answer sessions with students at the University where she spoke about the inspiration behind the book. "I wrote this book from the heart about the people and life I recognise," de Waal explained. "Leon is not a real child but he's an amalgam of lots of different children that I have come into contact with over the years."
After returning to the University to receive her honorary award during a graduation ceremony at the borough's Rose Theatre, she reflected on what being part of the Big Read had meant to her. "It was lovely to meet the students when I visited in 2017. The diversity of their experiences is what made it so special to speak to them. Coming back to the University after all this time and seeing students crossing the graduation stage with the world before them is a very humbling moment," she said.
Offering advice to graduating students, de Waal outlined learnings from across her career. "Dare to dream," she said. "Imagine the future that makes you excited to be alive and then go for it. Many of us will have restrictions on what we are able to do - family, illnesses, disabilities, geography - but we also have a responsibility to ourselves to try and make the best life you can. You've worked very hard for your degree, now make it work for you."
Since the launch of its KU Cares programme in 2006, Kingston has helped hundreds of care leavers and young adult carers reach and succeed at university, and the leading novelist shared words of encouragement for graduates from care backgrounds as they prepare to enter the world of work.
"For anyone who has experience of the care system, leaving university can feel like a safety net has been taken away," she said. "Suddenly you must make your way entirely on your own. For many care leavers, this won't necessarily be a strange feeling but there is no doubt that being a care leaver can be an additional hurdle to jump.
"Take the skills you've learnt from being in care - flexibility, self-sufficiency, budgeting, ambition - and put them to use. Don't apologise for where you've come from. Celebrate graduating and make sure employers know what you've overcome".
Professor Alison Baverstock, director of the Big Read project, said that the University community was proud to be able to recognise the contributions she had made to her field. "Kit was a great supporter of what we were trying to do with the Big Read, helping ease new students transition into university life with a common talking point through our shared reading initiative. My Name is Leon was loved across our entire community, by students and staff alike, and we were delighted to welcome her back to receive this award."