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.
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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 WaalMy 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.