Leon is angry – the cover of this book sums up his situation perfectly. He is eight when Carol, his mother, gives birth to his wonderful baby brother Jake. Unlike Leon, Jake has soft blond hair and his skin is white and their Dads are different. Despite Carol’s assurances that Jake’s father will come to join them and then they will all be together, events take a different turn. Carol implodes without a man in her life, leaving Leon to look after Jake. After asking for help from their neighbour Tina one too many times, Social Services arrive to take over and so Leon finds himself and Jake living with Maureen with the orange hair instead. But then comes the horrible day when the social worker sits Leon down and explains that since Jake is such a tiny baby, another couple want to be his Mummy and Daddy and that Jake will be going to live with them instead, leaving Leon behind.
Pitched from Leon’s perspective, this story is truly heart-breaking. We see Leon’s life become steadily more unmanageable, a domino effect of mounting frustration which most of the adults in his life fail to understand. Allowed to take only one toy from his old home, Leon later asks his social worker when he will be getting them back. The social worker looks embarrassed and explains that the flat has been let to someone else now so his toys will have gone. It is the simple injustice of this – bad enough that the simple colour of the child’s skin and his age mean that he loses his brother as well as his mum, they couldn’t even shift themselves to make sure that the poor child got to keep his toys.
It reminds me of doing a teacher training placement in a class where there was one boy whose mother had died very suddenly – one day we made papier maché Viking helmets but my training partner accidentally broke the mask belonging to the bereaved child. This young boy had not missed a day of school following his mother’s death, he was coping with having to live with his grandmother because his father worked shifts, he was causing nobody any bother – but when he found out that his mask was broken, he cried for nearly an hour. Accidents happen, but I’ve never forgotten how my training partner sneered about what a fuss he was making over something so trivial – for a child going through a trauma that they do not understand, nothing is trivial any more. How does a child understand the grief for a parent, a sibling? It’s too big. But the pain of a lost mask, or for Leon a lost toy – that is recognisable. That is something which can be responded to and ironically, if a child is doing their bit and carrying the pain that has been thrust upon them without complaint, expecting him to cope with any further loss, no matter how small, that is asking too much.
Leon reminded me very painfully though of a child I taught a few years ago, a child who my headteacher described ominously to Social Services as ‘a bit of an expert’ on taking care of his baby brother. Like Leon, K was not always easy to deal with – where Leon stuffs the dressing gown of his foster carer down the toilet, K would try to shove his head in a plastic bag or attempt to stab a fellow pupil with a pair of scissors. Teaching him often involved diving across the room to stop him from doing himself or others damage. He was hard to reach – I still think of him and wish him well. Yet, he was an eye-opener too about the care system – too often, we criticise social workers for leaving children for too long with their abusive parents but removing them is no guarantee of a happy ending. I have been in the unenviable position of waiting around with K and his baby brother while we tried to get them a suitable guardian. To be frank, The Story of Tracy Beaker is rather rose-tinted. I remember having the slightly unhinged desire to stuff the two children in the back of my car and take them home with me, before I remembered that I was living in a house share with four men, none of whom had been through a police check. Leon and Jake are lucky to meet Maureen, an experienced and loving foster parent but even the ultimately uplifting conclusion niggled me because I knew that it was not the ending that most children going through the care system receive. There is not enough love out there to go round and too many are forgotten.
Set against the backdrop of the 1980s and the race riots, Leon is exploring his own racial identity as he pedals his bicycle around the local allotments and gets himself into trouble with issues he fails to understand. He is a child with a man’s rage and when people look at him, they see an angry young black man, which brings problems of its own. Still, I found his home storyline to be the more compelling – Leon’s loss is rarely put into words and instead we hear it through the mutterings of the adults who surround him – we realise how far his struggle has been internal when Tufty, his ‘friend’ down at the allotments, notes to another character that he does not actually know Leon’s name. The social workers with their ‘pretend’ faces, feigning a sympathy that they do not have the time to feel in reality. Maureen quietly asking Leon to explain Jake’s routine and through this discovering how much Leon has had to do for him. Carol and her bedraggled life, unable to care for herself and shrugging off the role of mother. At one point, Leon suggests (with a fair amount of logic) that Maureen look after Carol as well as him, but Carol explains sadly that this is not an option available to grown ups.
I think though that the true heart of the book comes through Maureen – it is she who pronounces fiercely to the grieving Leo that things will be all right, she who expresses her disgust with the situation to the social worker and then later her disapproval of Carol – but it is the fact that she makes Leon her priority which brought tears to my eyes. I would wish a Maureen for so many of the children who I taught and it makes me want to cry all over again that I do not have the power to summon one forward. De Waal gives a name here to so many children who are blank and faceless in the eyes of the adults who make decisions over their future – this boy’s name is Leon, we must never forget that there are others like him.
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Published by Penguin Books on June 2nd 2016
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