The Leavers: A Novel

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One morning, Deming Guo’s mother Polly goes to her job at the nail salon and never comes home. Left with no one to care for him, eleven-year-old Deming is eventually adopted by two white college professors who move him from the Bronx to a small town upstate. They rename him Daniel Wilkinson in their efforts to make him over into their version of an “all-American boy.” But far away from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his new life with his mother’s disappearance and the memories of the family and community he left behind.

A vivid and moving examination of borders and belonging,The Leavers is the story of how one boy comes into his own when everything he’s loved has been taken away—and how one woman learns to live with the mistakes of her past.

The Leavers was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction and the winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction, a prize awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice.

Read an excerpt from The Leavers.

Learn more about why I wrote the novel.

Read Barbara Kingsolver’s interview with me about writing The Leavers.

Watch The Leavers book tour video and listen to The Leavers mixtape.

Praise for The Leavers: 

“There was a time I would have called Lisa Ko’s novel beautifully written, ambitious and moving, and all of that is true, but it’s more than that now: if you want to understand a forgotten and essential part of the world we live in, The Leavers is required reading.” —Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth

“[The Leavers] uses the voices of both [a] boy and his birth mother to tell a story that unfolds in graceful, realistic fashion and defies expectations. Though it won last year’s PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction, Ko’s book is more far-reaching than that.” —Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“Courageous, sensitive, and perfectly of this moment.” —Barbara Kingsolver, author of Flight Behavior

“[A] dazzling debut… Filled with exquisite, heartrending details, Ko’s exploration of the often-brutal immigrant experience in America is a moving tale of family and belonging.” People 

“A sweeping examination of family…. Ko’s stunning tale of love and loyalty—to family, to country—is a fresh and moving look at the immigrant experience in America, and is as timely as ever.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A dazzling international parade of the intrigue and dark shadows of motherhood, The Leavers will leave every reader craving more. This is one of the most ambitious novels of 2017, and it delivers.” Redbook

The Leavers has already won the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, an honor it surely deserves for its depiction of the tribulations of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Beyond that, and perhaps even more admirable, it is an exceptionally well written, fully realized work of art portraying the circumstances and inner worlds — the motives and emotional weather — of its two central characters. Ko is so psychologically penetrating, so acute in her passing observations and deft in the quick views she affords of her characters’ inner lives and surroundings, that her skill and empathy give real joy.” —Katherine Powers, Barnes and Noble Review

“Ko tells the heartbreaking story of a Chinese mother and her American-born son, who is adopted by a white couple after she disappears without warning and fails to return for several months. Ko is part of an active subgenre shining a light on an ugly truth about our country—that it is possible to come to America and be worse off as a result.” The Los Angeles Times

“A must-read.” Marie Claire

“Beautifully written and deeply affecting, combining the emotional insight of a great novel with the integrity of long-form journalism, The Leavers is a timely meditation on immigration, adoption, and the meaning of family.” The Village Voice

“Touching upon themes such as identity, determination, addiction, and loyalty, the author clearly shows readers that she is an emerging writer to watch. Ko’s writing is strong, and her characters, whether major or minor, are skillfully developed.”Library Journal (starred review)

“A timely touching story… excellent: compelling, well-realized, gritty and complicated.” Kansas City Star

“[G]orgeously redemptive… Lisa Ko’s debut novel is an achingly beautiful read about immigration, adoption, and the drive to belong. Beyond the desensitizing media coverage, Ko gives faces, (multiple) names, and details to create a riveting story of a remarkable family coming, going, leaving … all in hopes of someday returning to one another.” The Christian Science Monitor

“The Leavers is a debut of quiet force; Ko’s mastery is evident in her effortless sentences, capable of unspooling your heart before you even realized it was wound up.”The Brooklyn Rail

The Leavers offers no easy answers, but at every turn it is skillfully observed and written, sidestepping convenient explanations on the way to nuanced moments of tremendous grace. In some ways, the book is about inventing a better self and the heartbreaks one must endure to become that person… But the book is about so much more, both timelessly human and squarely of this anxious, fearful moment. It is also a paean to the American dream — one that contains a warning of the menace coiled inside. It is an essential document.” Nashville Scene

“[A]n astute study of the agony of separation and how grief, regret and dreams shape one another..” Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Lisa Ko is a subtle, intelligent writer… A beautiful, daring debut.” —KQED Arts

“Stunning… Written with gripping, unflinching prose, The Leavers is a very timely immigrant story suffused with true-to-life humor and heart.” Seattle Book Review

“Describing The Leavers in one sentence is as inadequate as describing New York City in one sentence. Lisa Ko brings a complex city to life, teeming with music and clamor, opportunity and injustice, noodle soup and greasy pizza. Through the beautiful and suffocating city, a mother and son emerge, so complicated in their relationship to each and themselves that I read without anticipating a conclusion, just wanting to know more. This is the book I’m recommending to everyone, just as I did with Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.” —Claire Burrows, Texas Book Festival

“A rich and sensitive portrait of lives lived across borders, cultures, and languages … One of the most engaging, deeply probing, and beautiful books I have read this year.” —Laila Lalami, author of The Moor’s Account

“In The Leavers, Lisa Ko has created one of the most courageous mother characters in recent memory. Polly is brash, brave, and heartbreaking and her ferocity is marvelous to behold. The Leavers is about the bonds between parents and children and the many pulls of home. It was a book I did not want to end.” —Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman

“Vividly written and moving, The Leavers is an engrossing story of one young boy struggling to adjust to his new life without his mother and community.” —Buzzfeed

“This thoughtful portrait of a first-generation American thoroughly explores the impact of displacement and systematic racism — trauma without brutality — in both Deming and his mother, as she grapples with the mistakes of her past.” —Brooklyn Daily

“One of 2017’s most anticipated fiction debuts… The Leavers feels as relevant as ever as the future of immigrants in America hangs in the balance.” —TIME

“The year’s powerful debut you won’t want to miss. The Leavers expertly weaves a tale of the conflicts between love and loyalty, personal identity and familial obligation, and the growing divide between freedom and social justice. An affecting novel that details the the gut-wrenching realities facing illegal immigrants and their families in modern America.—Bustle

“When Deming Guo was 11, his Chinese immigrant mother, Polly, left for work at a nail salon and never returned. In alternating perspectives, this heart-wrenching literary debut tells both of their stories.” Entertainment Weekly

“Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, which won the PEN/Bellwether Prize, may be a work of fiction, but the plot twists mirror America’s own urgent and timely political landscape.” W Magazine

“The Leavers is also about the very concept of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ — about belonging, and who we are when we lose the people who make us, well, ourselves. It’s about immigration and cultural barriers, the promise of the American dream and the less talked about way it can devolve into an American nightmare.” —Elizabeth Kiefer, senior features writer, Refinery29 

“Ko takes the reader on an incredible journey of abandonment, loyalty and love, showing us the deeply personal ripple effects of impersonal policy. I was hooked from page one.” The Washington Post’s The Lily

“There is something incredibly timely about this book, and something invaluable in Ko’s ability to fully humanize people who are far too often relegated to the position of symbols and far too rarely seen as fully realized beings. The Leavers is more than just a gorgeously written and perfectly constructed novel; it’s a book that means something – maybe even more than its author intended.” —Portland Book Review

“What Ko seeks to do with The Leavers is illuminate the consequence of [deportation] facilities, and of the deportation machine as a whole, on individual lives. Ko’s book arrives at a time when it is most needed; its success will be measured in its ability to move its readership along the continuum between complacency and advocacy.” The Los Angeles Review of Books

“Ko’s unforgettable narrative voice is a credit to the moving stories of immigration, loss, recovery, and acceptance that feel particularly suited for our times.” —NYLON Magazine

“Poignant and timely, this novel is ripe for discussion.” Real Simple

“A masterful debut novel that examines borders and belonging, and the universal desire for love.” Redbook

“The story’s most heartbreaking disclosures are powerful in their indictment of the unrealistic expectations placed upon struggling families.” Foreword

“[An] assured debut novel.. a thoughtful work about undocumented immigrants and the threats they endure.” —BookPage

“A searingly beautiful look at identity, belonging, and the perils of the transnational work force.” —May-lee Chai, The Missouri Review

“[E]ngaging and highly topical… Ko deftly segues between the intertwined stories of the separated mother and son and conveys both the struggles of those caught in the net of immigration authorities and the pain of dislocation.” —The National Book Review

“Skillfully written… Those who are interested in closely observed, character-driven fiction will want to leave room for The Leavers on their shelves.” Booklist

“[A]n impressive literary debut…. Ko does a wonderful job of crafting sympathetic characters. The Leavers is never sentimental or cloying.” South China Morning Post

“An intense mediation on race, culture, identity, sense of place and belonging, The Leavers is a gorgeous and thoughtfully written debut novel.” —Entertainment Realm

“A perfectly timed novel for this political landscape, The Leavers is an intense and poignant examination of immigration and those marked by it.” —Read it Forward

“This timely novel depicts the heart- and spirit-breaking difficulties faced by illegal immigrants with meticulous specificity.” Kirkus Reviews

“A moving mother/son story and welcome contribution to immigrant literature. In writing about Polly and her son Deming, Ko captures one family’s unique experience of becoming American while also exposing the loss of status, economic desperation, physical endangerment, and psychological grit of the undocumented worker as well as the alienation, double consciousness, mobility, and comparative access of the first generation.” —Emily Raboteau, author of Searching for Zion

“A vivid portrait of a mother’s love and a directionless boy trying to find himself without the anchor of his mother, The Leavers is one of this summer’s most emotional and inspiring reading events.” —Pop Sugar

“A global emotional journey that takes readers from the streets of New York to the heart of China, The Leavers is the mother-son story you can’t miss this summer.” —SheKnows

“The Leavers describes the devastation caused by forced, abrupt and secret detentions that occur daily under our current Immigration Act [and] lets us feel the knife twist of sweeping government authority wielded without conscience or control. [Ko’s] work gives poignant voice to the fact the U.S. can, and must, write a better immigration system.” Ms. 

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iBOOKS BEST BOOKS OF 2017 and BEST BOOKS OF MAY SELECTION
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REFINERY29 BOOK CLUB FIRST SELECTION
10 DEBUT WRITERS WORTH YOUR TIME (Kirkus Reviews)
10 TITLES TO PICK UP NOW (O. Magazine)
10 BEST BOOKS OF MAY (Christian Science Monitor)
INDIES INTRODUCE PICK and INDIE NEXT GREAT READS (American Booksellers Association)
MOST ANTICIPATED: THE GREAT 2017 BOOK PREVIEW (The Millions)
10 BOOKS TO READ THIS SUMMER (The Village Voice)
12 BEST NOVELS ABOUT IMMIGRANTS AND REFUGEES (BookPage)
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38 BOOKS WE CAN’T WAIT TO READ THIS SPRING (The Washington Post)
25 FEMALE-DRIVEN BOOKS, MOVIES, AND SHOWS WE CAN’T WAIT TO GET OUR HANDS ON (TIME)
NEW YEAR, NEW VOICES and 16 DEBUT NOVELS TO READ IN 2017 (Entertainment Weekly)
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THE SEASON’S HOTTEST DEBUT NOVELS (Goodreads)
LIBRARY READS MAY 2017 SELECTION
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6 NEW BOOKS ABOUT NYC TO READ THIS SUMMER (PureWow)
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101 BOOKS FOR SUMMER READING (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
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THE POWERFUL 2017 DEBUT YOU DON’T WANT TO MISS, 15 OF 2017’s MOST ANTICIPATED NOVELS, and 7 REASONS 2017 IS GOING TO BE AN INCREDIBLE YEAR FOR BOOKS (Bustle)
TOP DEBUT NOVELS FOR MAY 2017 and GREAT FIRST ACTS: DEBUT NOVELS (Library Journal)
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THE SHORT LIST: FIVE BOOKS THAT WON’T DISAPPOINT (Real Simple)
PEN/BELLWETHER AWARD FOR SOCIALLY ENGAGED FICTION

Order The Leavers:
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s