Leon loves chocolate bars, Saturday morning cartoons, and his beautiful, golden-haired baby brother. When Jake is born, Leon pokes his head in the crib and says, “I’m your brother. Big brother. My. Name. Is. Leon. I am eight and three quarters. I am a boy.” Jake will play with no one but Leon, and Leon is determined to save him from any pain and earn that sparkling baby laugh every chance he can.
But Leon isn’t in control of this world where adults say one thing and mean another. When their mother falls victim to her inner demons, strangers suddenly take Jake away; after all, a white baby is easy to adopt, while a half-black, nine-year-old faces a less certain fate. Vowing to get Jake back by any means necessary, Leon’s own journey will carry him through the lives of a doting but ailing foster mother, Maureen; Maureen’s cranky and hilarious sister, Sylvia; a social worker Leon knows only as “The Zebra”; and a colorful community of local gardeners and West Indian political activists.
Told through the perspective of young Leon, too innocent to entirely understand what has happened to him and baby Jake, but determined to do what he can to make things right. In the end, this is an uplifting story about the power of love, the unbreakable bond between brothers, and the truth about what ultimately makes a family. My Name Is Leon will capture your imagination and steal your heart with its “moving exploration of race and the foster-care system that offers precious insight into the mind of a child forced to grow up well before his time” (Booklist).
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
My Name is Leon
April 2, 1980
No one has to tell Leon that this is a special moment. Everything else in the hospital seems to have gone quiet and disappeared. The nurse makes him wash his hands and sit up straight.
“Careful, now,” she says. “He’s very precious.”
But Leon already knows. The nurse places the brand-new baby in his arms with its face toward Leon so that they can look at each other.
“You have a brother now,” she says. “And you’ll be able to look after him. What are you? Ten?”
“He’s nearly nine,” says Leon’s mom, looking over. “Eight years and nine months. Nearly.”
Leon’s mom is talking to Tina about when the baby was coming out, about the hours and the minutes and the pain.
“Well,” says the nurse, adjusting the baby’s blanket, “you’re nice and big for your age. A right little man.”
She pats Leon on his head and brushes the side of his cheek with her finger. “He’s a beauty, isn’t he? Both of you are.”
She smiles at Leon and he knows that she’s kind and that she’ll look after the baby when he isn’t there. The baby has the smallest fingers Leon has ever seen. He looks like a doll with its eyes closed. He has silky white hair on the very top of his head and a tiny pair of lips that keep opening and closing. Through the holey blanket, Leon can feel baby warmth on his belly and his legs and then the baby begins to wriggle.
“I hope you’re having a nice dream, baby,” Leon whispers.
After a while, Leon’s arm begins to hurt and just when it gets really bad the nurse comes along. She picks the baby up and tries to give him to Leon’s mom.
“He’ll need feeding soon,” she says.
But Leon’s mom has her handbag on her lap.
“Can I do it in a minute? Sorry, I was just going to the smoking room.”
She moves off the bed carefully, holding on to Tina’s arm, and shuffles away.
“Leon, you watch him, love,” she says, hobbling off.
Leon watches the nurse watching his mother walk away but when she looks at Leon she’s smiling again.
“I tell you what we’ll do,” she says, placing the baby in the crib next to the bed. “You stay here and have a little chat with your brother and tell him all about yourself. But when your mommy comes back it will be time for his feed and you’ll have to get on home. All right, sweetheart?”
Leon nods. “Shall I wash my hands again?” he asks, showing her his palms.
“I think you’ll be all right. You just stand here and if he starts crying, you come and fetch me. Okay?”
Leon makes a list in his head and then starts at the beginning.
“My name is Leon and my birthday is on the fifth of July, nineteen seventy-one. Your birthday is today. School’s all right but you have to go nearly every day and Miss Sheldon won’t let proper soccer balls in the playground. Nor bikes but I’m too tall for mine anyway. I’ve got two Easter eggs and there’s toys inside one of them. I don’t think you can have chocolate yet. The best program is The Dukes of Hazzard but there are baby programs as well. I don’t watch them anymore. Mom says you can’t sleep in my room till you’re older, about three, she said. She’s bought you a shopping basket with a cloth in it for your bed. She says it’s the same basket Moses had but it looks new. My dad had a car with no roof and he took me for a drive in it once. But then he sold it.”
Leon doesn’t know what to say about the baby’s dad because he has never seen him, so he talks about their mother.
“You can call her Carol if you like, when you can talk. You probably don’t know but she’s beautiful. Everyone’s always saying it. I think you look like her. I don’t. I look like my dad. Mom says he’s colored but Dad says he’s black but they’re both wrong because he’s dark brown and I’m light brown. I’ll teach you your colors and your numbers because I’m the cleverest in my class. You have to use your fingers in the beginning.”
Leon carefully feels the downy fluff on the baby’s head.
“You’ve got blond hair and she’s got blond hair. We’ve both got thin eyebrows and we’ve both got long fingers. Look.”
Leon holds his hand up. And the baby opens his eyes. They are a dusty blue with a deep black center, like a big period. The baby blinks slowly and makes little kissing noises with his mouth.
“Sometimes she takes me to Auntie Tina up on the next landing. I can walk up to Auntie Tina’s on my own but if you come, I’ll have to carry you in the basket.”
The baby won’t be able to speak until it’s much bigger so Leon just carries on.
“I won’t drop you,” he says. “I’m big for my age.”
He watches the baby blowing him kisses and leans into the crib and touches the baby’s lips with his fingertip.
His mom and Tina and the nurse come back all at the same time. Leon’s mom comes straight over to the crib and puts her arm round Leon. She kisses his cheek and his forehead.
“Two boys,” she says. “I’ve got two beautiful, beautiful boys.”
Leon puts his arms round his mom’s waist. She’s still got a round belly like the baby was still in there and she smells different. Or maybe it’s just the hospital. All the babyness made Leon’s mom puffed out and red in the face and now she’s near back to being herself again. Everything except the belly. He carefully touches his mother through her flowery nightie.
“Are there any more in there?” he says.
The nurse and Tina and his mom all laugh at the same time.
“That’s men for you,” says the nurse. “All charm.”
But Leon’s mom bends down and puts her face close to Leon.
“No more,” she says. “Just me and you and him. Always.”
Tina puts her coat on and leaves ten cigarettes on the bed for Carol to have later.
“Thanks, Tina,” she says, “and thanks for having Leon again. Think I’ll be out on Tuesday by the sound of it.”
Carol shuffles up in the bed and the nurse puts the baby in her arms. He is making little breathing noises that sound like the beginning of a cry. Leon’s mom begins to unfasten her cardigan.
“Isn’t he lovely, Leon? You be good, all right?” and she kisses him again.
The whole of the baby’s head fits into her hand.
“Come to Mommy,” she whispers and cradles him against her chest.
Tina’s flat is very different from Leon’s but it’s exactly the same as well. Both maisonettes have two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs and a kitchen and living room downstairs.
Leon’s house is on the ground floor of the first block by the divided highway and Tina’s house is up on the next landing. The roadway has three rows of traffic on each side and the cars go so fast that they put a barrier up by the sidewalk. Now if Leon and Carol want to cross the road, they have to walk for ages to go to a crossing and press a button and wait until it starts to beep. The first time it was exciting but now it just makes it take longer to get to school in the morning.
Tina lets Leon sleep in the same bedroom as her baby. She always makes a bouncy, comfortable bed when Leon stays. She takes two cushions off the sofa and then wraps them in a blanket and puts a little baby’s quilt over him. When he is lying down she throws some coats on top and covers everything over with a bedspread. It’s like a nest or a den because no one would know he was there, like camouflage in the jungle. His bed looks like a pile of clothes in the corner but then “AAAGGGH,” there is a monster underneath and it jumps up and kills you. Tina always leaves the light on in the hall but tells him he has to be very quiet because of her baby.
Her baby is big and wobbly and his name suits him. Bobby. Wobbly Bobby. His head is too big for his body and when Leon plays with him, he always gets some of Bobby’s dribble on his hand. Bobby’s Wobbly Dribble. Leon’s brother won’t be like Bobby and just suck on his plastic toys all day and get his bib soaking wet. He won’t topple over on the sofa under the weight of his big head and just stay there till someone moves him. Leon always sits Bobby up but then Bobby thinks it’s a game and keeps on doing it.
Bobby loves Leon. He can’t talk and, anyway, he always has a pacifier in his mouth but as soon as Leon walks in the door, Bobby wobbles across the carpet and holds Leon’s legs. Then he puts out his arms for Leon to pick him up. When Leon’s brother is older they’re going to play together, soldiers and Action Man. They’re going to both have machine guns and run all over the house shooting at targets. Bobby can watch.
Tina’s house always has a window open and smells of baby lotion. Tina looks a bit like a baby herself because she’s got a round face with puffy cheeks and round eyes that bulge. She makes her hair different colors all the time but she’s never happy with it and Carol keeps telling her to go blond.
Tina always says, “If I had your face, Carol, it wouldn’t matter so much,” and Leon thinks she’s right.
Tina has a leather sofa that is cold and slippery on Leon’s legs and a sheepskin rug in front of the gas fire and a massive TV. She doesn’t let Leon call her “Tina,” like he calls his mom “Carol.” He has to call her “Auntie Tina” and he has to call Carol “Mom” because she says children have to have respect. And she doesn’t let Leon eat in front of the TV. He has to sit at a wooden table in the kitchen where there isn’t much room because she has a big fridge-freezer with ice cream in it. Bobby sits in his high chair smiling at Leon and Tina puts two scoops in Leon’s bowl and one for Bobby. Leon’s brother will probably only get half a scoop because he’ll be the smallest.
Sometimes, Tina’s boyfriend comes, but when he sees Leon he always says, “Again?” and Tina says, “I know.”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for My Name Is Leon includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kit de Waal. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Set during the race riots of the 1980s, My Name Is Leon tells the story of Leon, a half-black nine-year-old boy who struggles to make sense of his changing world. After his mother suffers a mental breakdown, Leon and his baby brother, Jake, are sent into foster care. Jake—who is white—is soon adopted, and Leon is left wondering why his home life has fallen apart. Meanwhile, at a local garden where Leon likes to ride his bike, racial tensions spark between a West Indian political activist and an aging member of Ireland’s IRA. When life at his new home becomes too much for Leon to bear, he sets out to find Jake and his mother but comes face-to-face with the ugly realities of inequality and injustice instead. Amid the chaos, Leon and those around him learn that love and tolerance can often be found in the most unlikely places.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. “You’re nice and big for your age. A right little man” (1), the nurse tells Leon when he visits the hospital the day Jake is born. Discuss your first impression of Leon and Carol. Is the nurse right in her assessment that Leon is a “right little man”? Do you think his size changes expectations for his behavior, and does he meet these expectations? Is Carol’s initial behavior in the hospital indicative of what is to come? How so?
2. On page 23 Leon notes, “things have started to get jangled up at home.” Discuss the ways in which Carol’s depression becomes increasingly apparent from Leon’s point of view. How does Leon attempt to cope with the changes?
3. Consider the ways in which notions of right and wrong are examined in the novel. Do the adults appear to have a better grasp than Leon of right and wrong in their dealings with Leon and Jake? Consider Carol, Tina, Maureen, Sylvia, Mr. Devlin, and Tufty in your response.
4. Do you think Carol is a character foil for Maureen? Compare and contrast Leon’s two mothers. Do Maureen’s virtues seem more apparent in light of Carol’s shortcomings? How so?
5. Revisit the scene beginning on page 58, when Maureen comforts Leon after a bad dream. “You will be all right, Leon. You will be all right” (61) Maureen assures him, insisting that one day he will be reunited with his baby brother. Does this scene act as a hinge for Maureen and Leon’s relationship? Do you think this could be the moment Maureen begins to consider herself as more than a temporary foster mother to Leon? And
does Leon begin to trust Maureen after this?
6. Why do you think Leon enjoys visiting the Rookery Road Allotments? Do the “tidy rows of flowers and vegetables” (98) provide order for a boy whose life is messy and out of his control? Might the fragile plants described as “babies . . . babies [who] need looking after” (120) act as a metaphor for Jake and everything Leon is missing at home?
7. Do you agree that love is a possible theme of My Name Is Leon? Is love both the undoing of and salvation for these characters? Consider Carol, Leon, Maureen, Mr. Devlin, and Tufty in your response.
8. Part of what makes My Name Is Leon so memorable is the child narrator. Leon, like all children, both misunderstands situations and simultaneously seems to grasp the complexities of life better than the adults. For example, on page 116 Leon visits Maureen in the hospital and notices that “her mouth is smiling but her eyes are sad.” Discuss other moments in the novel when Leon seems wise beyond his years. Why do you think children notice what adults do not?
9. “I could be him, Mom. . . .You could come back for me and sometimes, I could be him” (146), Leon cries to Carol. For their broken family, shared memories are the only thing that still unites Sandra, Leon, and Jake. What role do you think memory plays in the novel as a whole? Is it memory that sustains Leon through his heartache?
10. Sylvia, though less motherly than Maureen, at times offers Leon what he most needs: laughter. Point out a few examples in the novel where Sylvia helps Leon find the humor in the absurd. Why do you think laughter is a good medicine for pain?
11. Why do you think Leon steals? What significance do the money and items he takes have for him? Do you think the stolen items give Leon a sense of control or order? Consider Leon’s breakdown in the shed with Tufty and Mr. Devlin in your response, paying particular attention to the moment when Leon says, “Everyone steals things from me” (252).
12. Race plays an important role in My Name Is Leon. Would you characterize some of the characters in the novel as racist? Why or why not? Discuss the ways in which race directly impacts events in the novel, specifically for Leon, Jake, Carol, Mr. Devlin, and Tufty.
13. What significance does the title have for the story? Why do you think the author emphasizes Leon’s name? Are our names what are central to our identity?
14. Revisit the moment when Leon last meets Carol, beginning on page 305. In light of the ending, do you understand this scene as a final goodbye between mother and son? Do you think it is pivotal that Carol tells Leon “I still love you” (279)?
15. How does the final image of Leon rolling a seed between his fingers resonate with you? Leon muses that his seed “will grow up to be a big plant and that plant will have its own seeds to make another plant” (288). What is Leon saying, really? Do you think this image indicates that his life will turn out to be okay?
A Conversation with Kit de Waal
My Name Is Leon is your first novel. Can you describe the experience of writing this for us? What inspired you to tell Leon’s story?
Leon was actually a character I wrote in another book. He was a minor character and an adult but he kept appearing on the page and seemed to have a story to tell. I used to think about him all the time. I realized early on what drove him, and thought about his childhood life, and I originally wrote a short story based on his experience. It’s part of the chapter where he loses his brother. However, it wasn’t a successful short story, because it was too big for the container. It had to be written, but to be honest, I was a bit afraid of it; didn’t think I had the talent or the nerve. It’s one of the stories I felt a huge responsibility to get right because of the subject matter and the people involved.
Describe the research that went into the making of this novel. Was it a lot or a little? Did you need to research the race riot scene in particular?
There was virtually no research involved. I used to write training manuals for foster carers and social workers (in another life); I sit on an adoption panel (a local government board that makes decisions about which children should be adopted and who should adopt them); I was a magistrate (lay judge) for many years; and I have two adopted children. My mother was a also foster carer. As for the riots, in 1981 I was living about a quarter of a mile away from some of the worst riots in the UK. So I think that a lot of the detail came from my personal experience.
Leon is a very convincing child narrator. What was the most challenging aspect of writing from a young boy’s point of view? Why did you decide to tell Leon’s story from his point of view?
The most challenging aspect was thinking all the time about what is important to a child versus what we as adults notice. For example, sometimes I would literally get out of my chair, squat down, and look at the world from four feet high. What is different? What do I notice about people from that height? Then I tuned into my memories of being with my parents and their friends. Oh the boredom! The conversations that seemed to have no point about people I didn’t know, about subjects I couldn’t care less about, and all the time having to be quiet or having the door shut as soon as things got interesting. I tried to translate that into Leon’s life, and work out what he would be thinking given his circumstances and preoccupations. I also wrote with a picture of Leon (a picture of a child from the Internet) pinned on my screen so I didn’t forget whose story it really was. Lastly, I tried to not use any words that Leon wouldn’t understand or get the gist of. I tried to simplify the language of the book as much as possible. Apart from the psychologist’s report that he sees in the social worker’s bag, the language is made up of words in Leon’s knowledge if not his repertoire. As for telling the story from his point of view, no one else could know what he felt—no one else could tell his story but himself.
As the daughter of a mixed-race couple and the mother of two Native American children, do you feel particularly called to write about race and racial tensions? How do you manage to navigate the complexities of race in your work?
My children are actually not related by blood. My daughter is Lakota/black/white and my son is Caribbean/white. My husband is Austrian/Dutch/English and I am Caribbean/Irish. I wish I could answer the question about navigating the complexities of race but it’s so second nature—first nature—that I hardly realize I’m doing it. In 1960, when I was born, there were virtually no mixed marriages. My siblings and I were “both” and “neither.” We were not part of either immigrant community (Irish or black), or English quite obviously, yet we were part of all of those communities and saw them from the inside and the outside. This belonging and not-belonging actually gives you the ability to articulate, I feel, what it is to be black or white or Irish or neither, because you have an objective eye—when you want it. And, of course, you feel deeply when any of those communities are maligned or suffer racism and exclusion. It is indeed a complex issue and one that’s not become any simpler with time.
Did you draw from your real-life experiences to write about the foster care system?
Yes, my mother was a foster carer and a childminder. She’s not exactly Maureen and not at all like Sylvia! She did, however, fill our house with children and playmates. There were already five of us and there were at least five other children around throughout my childhood. Our house was a mess of toys and diapers and bottles and sterilizers and bikes and hanging laundry and biscuits and tears and laughter. It wasn’t idyllic, as we were pretty poor and always hungry, but there was something delightful about the ever-changing playmates and chaos.
Do you agree that ultimately My Name Is Leon is a novel about love? Why or why not? If not, what would you name as the major theme(s) of the novel?
It most definitely is a love story—several love stories. It’s about the love of a mother for her children, the love of two sisters, the love of a stranger for a child, and ultimately the love of one brother for another. It’s also about loss and acceptance. There are many losses in the book: Leon’s parents’ loss; Tufty and Mr. Devlin have both lost children; Maureen and Sylvia have both lost men; Leon’s grandmother loses her son, her life, and her grandson; and, of course, Leon loses his brother, his father, his mother, his belongings, his identity, his school, his bedroom, his toys, his grandmother, his sense of self-determination, his agency.
Why did you choose to set the novel during the 1980s? In your opinion, have racial tensions improved since then? If Leon and Jake were to be taken into foster care today, do you imagine their fates would be different?
I set the novel in 1981 because racial tensions were very high; the Royal Wedding of Charles to Diana had reached frenzy point by the summer, and I wanted Leon to be as insignificant as possible in relation to these big social events. I also wanted him to be outside of the house, and as we know, these days boys of that age are on their PlayStation 24/7! Unfortunately, yes, if Leon and Jake were taken into foster care today they would very likely be split up.
As someone who has worked for years in criminal and family law and who frequently writes about the forgotten and neglected, do you think Leon’s story is a common story? Do you think that arguably all of the characters in the novel are forgotten or neglected in some way?
Leon’s is sadly a very common story. Black boys over seven years of age are extremely difficult to place in adoptive homes. White, healthy babies are very easy to adopt; there is a long waiting list for them. Leon’s story is played out over and over in adoption services all over the UK. He will go into care: if he’s very, very lucky he will stay with the same foster carer until he grows up, but that would be unlikely. More commonly, he would move several times during his foster care. Black men and boys are overrepresented in prisons, in mental health institutions, and in unemployment. Many of those men and boys have come through the care system which, although it is populated by committed social workers and foster carers, often fails to replicate the best of family life. That is not to say that all family life is good. Leon would not have thrived had he stayed with his mother, but when family life works for children, it works well.
I think all the characters are forgotten or overlooked in some way. I am truly fascinated by the notion of being nobody or being seen as nobody. Maybe it’s being the onlooker again, being slightly outside of the mainstream. I don’t think there are any insignificant people or insignificant stories. There are huge domestic dramas happening all over the world at any given time: on a park bench, in a small kitchen, in a hospital waiting room, at the side of the road. Those are the stories I’m drawn to telling.
Share with us your writing heroes. Who is your favorite author? Who are you reading now?
I have so many heroes. I began my reading career with the classics so I have to include some of those authors in my top ten, who are:
I’m currently reading Kevin Barry’s new novel Beatlebone, which is about John Lennon and his purchase of an island off the coast of Ireland. I say I’m reading—I’m actually listening on audiobook because Kevin Barry himself is reading it, which is an absolute treat. Not every author is a good reader, but Kevin Barry gives a true performance.
Can you share with us any news of upcoming writing projects? Will we get to meet any of these characters again in future stories?
I’m currently writing my second novel, which is about a dollmaker. Can’t say anymore at this stage but I love it! And love her. Leon will definitely be back. He’s forty-three now and he’s the man I originally met in one of my other stories. He’s changed, obviously, and he’s been away, but he’s still Leon, and two of the other characters are still around when he comes back to town.