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The BookBrowse Review

Published September 20, 2017

ISSN: 1930-0018

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My Name Is Leon
My Name Is Leon
by Kit De Waal

Paperback (25 Jul 2017), 304 pages.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN-13: 9781501117466
BookBrowse:
Critics:
  

For fans of The Language of Flowers, a sparkling, big-hearted, page-turning debut set in the 1970s about a young black boy's quest to reunite with his beloved white half-brother after they are separated in foster care.

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, and try as he might he can't protect his little family from everything. 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 - on his brand-new BMX bike - 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 nine-year-old 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, he stubbornly, endearingly struggles his way through a system much larger than he can tackle on his own. My Name Is Leon is a vivid, gorgeous, and uplifting story about the power of love, the unbreakable bond between brothers, and the truth about what, in the end, ultimately makes a family.

1


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 is smiling again.



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?"

"Yes."

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."

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from My Name Is Leon by Kit De Waal. Copyright © 2016 by Kit De Waal. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  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?

     

    Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Simon & Schuster. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

A vivid and uplifting story about the power of love, the unbreakable bond between brothers, and the truth about what makes a family.

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Kit de Waal's striking debut, My Name is Leon, has inspired this big, long, complicated question: Have you ever read a book about a character that is very unlike you, yet the author has succeeded in making him so relatable that once you've seen the world through his eyes you will never look at it the same way again? All I can say is that when I opened this book I saw the world one way and when I looked up after finishing the last page the world had a different hue.

It's racially tumultuous South London in 1980, when a nurse hands eight-year-old Leon his newborn baby brother. Jake is angelic looking, "silky white hair" and "dusty blue [eyes] with a deep black center, like a big period." Leon notes how the two boys resemble each other with their long fingers and thin eyebrows. But with Leon's nappy black hair and caramel complexion, that's where the resemblance ends.

No matter. Leon is smitten. He thinks Jake, "looks like the Baby Jesus in his manger."

As his mom, Carol, goes off for a quick smoke before feeding Jake, Leon is put in charge of introducing the infant to the world. He tells the baby, "My name is Leon and my birthday is on the fifth of July, nineteen seventy-one. Your birthday is today." He goes on, talking about everything from his toys – Action Men – to his favorite TV show – The Dukes of Hazard – and more. He can't tell Jake anything about Jake's dad because he never met the man. Leon's own dad is absent – in jail – and when he and Jake and Carol go home to their maisonette, Leon knows the two brothers will become buddies.

Carol suffers debilitating postpartum depression and Leon is left to puzzle out Jake's care on his own. It becomes a drill: don't wake Jake too early or he's grouchy, change his diaper, don't forget the white cream, make the formula fast enough that Jake doesn't start to scream. Leon watches Jake sleep and by the movement of the baby's pacifier Leon can tell whether he will wake or drift back to uninterrupted sleep. Get the picture? Twenty-five-year-old Carol is so incapacitated by her depression and drug dependency that for all intents and purposes Leon is Jack's sole caregiver.

Before long, the situation spirals out of control. Leon can't rouse Carol from her bed, there is no food in the house, no diapers for Jake, and no money. The only option is to run upstairs, and ask a neighbor for help. The ambulance comes and brings Social Services. Carol is whisked to hospital; Jake and Leon are placed with elderly foster parent Maureen. Leon is permitted to take only what he can fit inside his backpack with the promise they would return for the rest. As foster parents go Maureen's a gem. She truly attaches to both boys and lavishes them with food, birthday and Christmas gifts, and love. All is as well as can be expected with Carol in extended rehab.

But there are too many childless couples yearning for infants, and towheaded Jake with his serene disposition and bright, Anglo features is an easy placement. Before the now-nine-year-old Leon can comprehend the meaning of the word adoption; before he has a chance to explain Jake's routine, his favorite activities and his quirks to the strange couple, they take Jake away. More hollow Social Services promises, this time of letters and photos, follow. Leon starts to act out.

Maureen takes ill and Leon has to make yet another move, again with only what he can fit in his backpack. This time he's living with Maureen's sister Sylvia. Going on ten now he's allowed to ride his bike around the neighborhood. He makes friends with a young black man and elderly Irishman who tend garden plots in the nearby allotments. The men, both philosophers in their own way, frequently tangle over trivial rules violations and politics. But they indulge Leon, tutoring him in vegetable husbandry, with a little attitude and even some poetry on the side.

For all Leon has gained – in Maureen, Sylvia and the allotments men – he's lost so much more. We feel the weight of loss that rests on his young shoulders. By mid-1981, he becomes determined to take fate into his own hands. Meanwhile the world around him is spinning out of control with the dual fevers of the impending royal wedding, and violent street riots in Brixton. (See Beyond the Book) And even though I knew disaster was pending, I couldn't turn my face away from de Waal's overpowering story.

So did I identify with Leon, despite being an elderly white American woman? Well, I unconsciously started referring to the book's title as "I Am Leon." Thanks to de Waal's magnificent character development, my name might be Donna but now I am Leon too.

Reviewed by Donna Chavez

Booklist
This moving exploration of race and the foster-care system offers precious insight into the mind of a child forced to grow up well before his time.

Kirkus Reviews
Taut, emotionally intense, and wholly believable, this beautiful and uplifting debut gives readers a hero to champion.

The Guardian (UK)
Kit de Waal has already garnered praise and attention for her short fiction. She worked in family and criminal law for many years, and wrote training manuals on fostering and adoption; she also grew up with a mother who fostered children. This helps explain the level of insight and authenticity evident in My Name Is Leon, her moving and thought-provoking debut novel... De Waal skilfully brings her adult characters to life through the perspective of her child protagonist and she bestows great compassion on all her protagonists.

Author Blurb Chris Cleave, bestselling author of Little Bee
Leon is pure goodwill in a wicked world, and he won't leave you when you put this unique book down. Authentic and beautiful, urgent and honest, this novel does what only the best do: it quietly makes room in your heart.

Author Blurb Rachel Joyce, bestselling author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
There is something about small boys and mothers that really tugs at me. I found it tender and heart-breaking.

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The Brixton Riots

Brixton RiotsWith his nappy black hair and dark complexion, the boy at the center of Kit de Waal's debut, My Name is Leon, is caught up in the middle of the racial tensions of 1981 South London. The biracial child has a nine-year-old's agenda, born of anger, and stumbles innocently into a roiling stew of grownup rage and frustration. The bigger snapshot of the day shows a fragile tinderbox of young Afro-Caribbean men who were unemployed, with lots of time on their hands, engaging in marginally legal and illegal activities for pocket change and something to do.

Brixton RiotsThese disenfranchised were the British-born sons and daughters of Caribbean immigrants who had settled in London after World War II. The young men, in particular, were suffering high unemployment after the economic troubles of the late 1970s. Additionally they were caught between dueling cultures; seen by many as enemies of Britain because they seemed to resist assimilation as they clung to West Indian music and traditions. The authorities, stymied for ways of coping with what appeared to be rampant crime and drug abuse, resurrected an ancient anti-vagrancy law that permitted police to stop and search anyone they suspected of a crime, black or white. However, black British men noticed they were being stopped and searched much more frequently than their white counterparts and began calling the police out on the racially discriminatory practice. At the upper levels of government, tempers flared as liberals and conservatives argued ideologies.

Brixton RiotsSuddenly, in April of 1981, the largely minority community of Brixton ignited. At the time the so-called Brixton Riots or Brixton Race Riots, depending on who you ask, set new precedents as far as levels of fury and destruction were concerned. Besides the massive economic losses due to vandalism and looting, dozens of innocent bystanders and almost 150 police officers were injured resulting in over 200 arrests. Worse, perhaps, than the cost to community wellbeing and property, was the way the fabric of the police/civilian relationship was rent.

Decades later gentrification has taken hold in Brixton, making it one of London's up-and-coming communities.

Police behind shields during Brixon Riots, courtesy of sirrobertpeel.wordpress.com
Police carrying man, courtesy of sirrobertpeel.wordpress.com
Police car on fire, courtesy of quiz.com

By Donna Chavez

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