My Name is Leon
By Kit De Waal
Leon is nine, and has a perfect baby brother called Jake. They have gone to live with Maureen, who has fuzzy red hair like a halo, and a belly like Father Christmas. But the adults are speaking in low voices, and wearing Pretend faces. They are threatening to give Jake to strangers. Since Jake is white and Leon is not.
As Leon struggles to cope with his anger, certain things can still make him smile - like Curly Wurlys, riding his bike fast downhill, burying his hands deep in the soil, hanging out with Tufty (who reminds him of his dad), and stealing enough coins so that one day he can rescue Jake and his mum.
Evoking a Britain of the early eighties, My Name is Leon is a heart-breaking story of love, identity and learning to overcome unbearable loss. Of the fierce bond between siblings. And how - just when we least expect it - we manage to find our way home.
Prior to reading My Name is Leon I had read two books that had left me feeling disappointed so I was very pleased when I realised this was a book to love. This review contains some spoilers but nothing major.
This book is narrated from the point of view of a young boy named Leon and begins with him meeting his baby brother Jake in hospital.
“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 baby has the smallest fingers Leon has ever seen. He looks like a doll with its eyes closed. He has silly 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.”
Leon is very mature about the arrival of his little brother and feels a connection with him from the beginning, talking to him about their mother Carol. He tells Jake he can’t tell him about his father because he doesn’t know who he is.
I liked that although Leon speaks to Jake about their differences he also talks to him about the things they have in common.
Mum says he’s coloured but Dad says he’s black but they’re both wrong because he’s dark brown and I’m light brown…You’ve got blonde hair and she’s got blonde hair. We’ve both got thin eyebrows and we’ve got long fingers.
The only thing Leon doesn’t like about his new brother is his name. Leon wanted his mum to name him after one of the characters from his favourite TV show Dukes of Hazard.
When Jake and Carol come home from the hospital Leon is fascinated by Jake and finds him more entertaining than the TV. His fascination with Jake’s bowel was one of the many things that made me laugh
Babies’ poo is a funny colour – it’s not brown, it’s greeny yellow – and Carol has to wipe it all with special new baby lotion.
Within a few days of Carol and Jake being home Leon notices that his mother is crying all the time.
Leon has begun to notice the things that make a lot of noise; when she hasn’t got any money; when she comes back from the phone box; when Leon asks too many questions; and when she’s staring at Jake.
Leon and Jake are being taken to Carol’s friend Tina’s all the time, so often that Tina’s boyfriend has commented and they have stayed there for days at a time. Tina advises Carol that she should go to the doctors about her moods.
Leon’s mum has mental health issues and Leon is often left to look after both Jake and his mum.
Some days Leon doesn’t go to school at all, just stays home with Jake while their mum sleeps. But when he does go, Leon has to wake his mum up before he leaves to remind her about Jake. Sometimes she tells him to go away and he spends the whole day thinking about Jake’s dinner or Jake’s nap-time.
“He has to look after Jake nearly every day and Carol keeps crying and going to the phone box, leaving Leon in charge, and once when he picked Jake up, he wriggled so much that he fell on the carpet. He had stopped crying by the time Carol came back but it made Leon feel angry with her and he stole some more coins out of her purse. But he could have taken all the money because she doesn’t know what’s in there…His nappy is always heavy and wet but as soon as Leon changes it, Jake starts smiling and laughing.”
Some of the scenes were harrowing to read,
Jake isn’t even wearing a nappy anymore because it smelt terrible and all the new nappies have gone. He had to sit Jake on a towel in his basket and put some toys in with him but he can get out now and roll all over the place and looking after Jake is getting much too hard. And they’re both hungry all the time these days. Jake has been crying all morning and Carol won’t do anything.
Eventually Leon gets desperate and goes to borrow some money off Tina. Tina comes to their flat and is so shocked by what she sees, and the state of Carol, that she calls an ambulance and social services.
“She looks at how untidy Leon has been and how he has sat in front of the telly and eaten his cereal by putting his hand in the box. How he hasn’t put Jake’s nappies in the bin. How he should have opened the window like Tina does in her house and made everywhere smell of baby lotion. Leon sees what Tina sees. Why didn’t he tidy up before he asked her for any money?”
When the social workers come Leon notices they have ‘Pretend Faces’ on. He knows they will pretend to be happy or sad and all the while they will be avoiding telling him what is really going on. Leon sits and listens guiltily while Tina explains to the social workers what has been going on.
“It all got out of hand when the baby’s dad finished with her. Tony, I think he’s called. Don’t know his second name. She took it bad I mean really bad.’
‘What about Leon’s father? Is he around?’
‘Him? Byron? Not him, he’s done a runner. Carol said he was supposed to go to court and he couldn’t face it. But even when he was around he wasn’t much use. He’d come and go as he pleased. He’d be with her for a couple of weeks then he’d be off. Then he was inside for a bit and as soon as he was out they were arguing all the time. And drinking. Both of them drank. And anyway, when she got pregnant by Tony it all just came to a head.”
Leon and Jake are placed temporarily with a foster mother called Maureen. Once they are in Maureen’s home Leon overhears her talking to the social worker he calls Zebra. Leon is angry that they are talking about his mum again.
he’s been the main carer….baby and mother, yes, both of them…malnourished…failure to thrive…drug dependency.
After a short time living with Maureen Leon is told that Jake is being adopted and won’t be living with them anymore.
Because love. Just because. Because he’s a baby, a white baby. And you’re not. Apparently because people are horrible and because life isn’t fair, Pigeon. Not fair at all. And if you ask me, it’s plain wrong.
Leon likes Maureen but all he wants is to live with Carol and Jake. He doesn’t understand why he can’t be the one to look after them and he feels guilty like it is all his fault that he can’t.
Over time Leon finds things that distract him from his anger and frustration. He likes Maureen and enjoys the stories her sister Sylvia tells him. Leon also enjoys spending time with the new friends he meets along the way. All the time he is constantly plotting to get back to Carol and Jake so they can be a family again.
There were several times where this book moved me to tears and several more where it made me angry, ultimately though it made me care about what happened to every single character.
There were a lot of emotive topics dealt with in this book; race, adoption and mental health. All the topics were dealt with in a sensitive manner.
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