Cover image for Leon's story
Leon's story
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, c1997.
Physical Description:
107 p. : illustrations ; 19 cm.
Reading Level:
970 L Lexile
Personal Subject:
Added Author:
The son of a North Carolina sharecropper recalls the hard times faced by his family and other African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century and the changes that the civil rights movement helped bring about.


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book J 921 TILLAGE 1 1
Book J 921 TILLAGE 0 1

On Order



"Leon's Story is a powerful, wonderful thing!" -- Nikki Giovanni

I remember that as a young boy I used to look in the mirror and I would curse my color, my blackness. But in those days they didn't call you "black." They didnt say "minority." They called us "colored" or "nigger."

Leon Tillage grew up the son of a sharecropper in a small town in North Carolina. Told in vignettes, this is his story about walking four miles to the school for black children, and watching a school bus full of white children go past. It's about his being forced to sit in the balcony at the movie theater, hiding all night when the Klansmen came riding, and worse. Much worse.
But it is also the story of a strong family and the love that bound them together. And, finally, it's about working to change an oppressive existence by joining the civil rights movement. Edited from recorded interviews conducted by Susan L. Roth, Leon's story will stay with readers long after they have finished his powerful account.

Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this riveting autobiography, Baltimore janitor Leon Walter Tillage reflects on his life with all the vitality of a storyteller gathering his audience around him. He recalls his childhood as an African American sharecropper's son in 1940s North Carolina: "Once you got on a farm you could work a lifetime and never get out of debt." His mother made soup with "pot likker," the liquid left over from cooking collard greens for the Johnsons (the white owners of the farm they worked). His job in the tobacco field was to walk behind his father's plow with a stick and flip up the tobacco; "the dirt would smother it, you see." Each afternoon Leon walked home from school with his friends, and often the white kids' bus would stop so they could throw stones: "So what you would do when they were throwing stones at you, you would start screaming and hollering and begging. They liked that...." These episodes have an unusual immediacy because the book is edited from recorded interviews conducted by Roth, whose daughter heard Tillage at a school assembly; oral histories have a way of stripping away the sentiment and going straight for the moments that are etched forever in the teller's memories. Tillage's words describe a time, only a few short decades back, when Klansmen and Jim Crow laws ruled the South. But he also tells of marching for his rights and of his own triumphs: "There were bad times, but you know, there were rejoicing times, too." Roth's (Martha and the Dragon) dramatic black-and-white collages pay homage to the power of Leon's story, a tale that does more in its gentle way to expose the horrors of racism than most works of fiction ever could. Ages 8-up. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Horn Book Review

(Intermediate) Michael Dorris's adult novels Yellow Raft in Blue Water and Cloud Chamber chronicle the deceptions and betrayals that nearly destroy a family, generation after generation. Yellow Raft in Blue Water moves from the present generation of fifteen-year-old Rayona back through two generations of women on her maternal side, while Cloud Chamber opens in nineteenth-century Ireland and moves forward through five generations of Rayona's paternal family. Whereas these two books convey how suffocating and harmful relationships can be, The Window throws itself open to the strengths of familial bonds. From the moment eleven-year-old Rayona sits by the window waiting for the return of her frequently delinquent mother, this novel pulsates forward with an energy and wit that never falters. In lively contrast to Dorris's more somber historical novels for children, the seemingly cocky but vulnerable and emotionally needy Rayona narrates this short novel with a breezy, spunky voice. When her Indian mother does not return from her latest binge to declare their usual "National Holiday" (on which she and Rayona can eat breakfast for supper and practice being best friends), Rayona's philandering black father informs her that her mother has checked into a rehab center, but that he is unable to care for Rayona. Her foster placement with the relentlessly cheerful Potters (Rayona is amazed to discover that "there are actual people like this who aren't on a weekly sitcom") proves short-lived and disastrous; placement with the stolid Mrs. Jackson turns to unexpected fun for them both but is likewise cut short. Rayona senses that her father, in talking with her about his family (with whom she will live next) is "leaving something out, some detail, some secret within a secret, but I am so anxious to find out what happened next, to get to the 'me' part, that I let it go by." The Window is all the "me part," keeping the exuberant narrator squarely in the middle as she finds her place in the secrets of her family. Rayona soon learns that her grandmother (her father's mother) is white-a fact he tells Rayona when he is taking her to meet her grandmother for the first time. Rayona resolves not to miss another word for the rest of her life. Sitting in the window seat of the airplane, she understands that she will never again "be able to look out a small window and see [her] whole world from it." With the introduction of Rayona's great-grandmother, the ancient and proper Mamaw, her sensible and wise Aunt Edna, and her grandmother Marcella (a "vanilla Hostess cupcake" of a woman), Dorris's novel becomes yet more unguarded as these three women embrace their young relative with unconditional love. No scene feels more genuinely celebratory than when her aunt and grandmother travel west with Rayona to return her home. Having installed a device atop their car to provide cool air-a contrivance that re-quires the windows to be rolled up-the three must shout to be heard, causing a cacophony of "beg your pardons." When Grand-mother opens the window, thinking to be chastised but instead winning the approval of everyone as the cooler sails away, all three break into hilarity and song. Without glos-sing over the hurt and pain of parental abandonment, this novel of open win-dows is a joy, a "national holiday" to which we can return any day of the week. s.p.b. Picture Books Marc Brown Arthur's Computer Disaster; illus. by the author (Preschool, Younger) Arthur knows he's not supposed to be using his mother's computer, but the lure of Deep, Dark Sea, "the greatest game in the universe," is irresistible. Predictably, the computer breaks; luckily, it's easy to fix; reassuringly, Mom is not mad, just disappointed. She decrees that there will be no computer gaming for a week-at least for Arthur: "'I'll be right up,' called Mom. 'As soon as I blast these skeletons from the treasure chest.'" "Adapted by Marc Brown from a teleplay by Joe Fallon," this story of mild disaster followed by mild reproof will be a pleasant diversion for fans of the popular TV personality. r.s. Eve Bunting Ducky; illus. by David Wisniewski (Preschool) David Wisniewski's Caldecott-winning paper-cutting talents get a comedic workout here, illustrating Bunting's slightly sly text about a plastic duck who, along with thousands of fellow bathtub toys, is washed overboard when a storm hits the freighter ferrying them across the ocean (Bunting supplies a note about the factual event that inspired the story). The duck tells the story ("Our ship has disappeared. The sea is big, big, big. Oh, I am scared!"), including an unfortunate encounter with a shark ("It shakes its head and spits us out. I expect we are not too tasty, though we are guaranteed non-toxic") and the basic existential dilemma of a bathtub toy out of its element: "I wish we could swim and get away. But all we can do is float." The ocean's currents eventually bring the duck to shore alongside many of his compatriots, and he finally achieves his destiny, floating in the security of a bubblebath. This is an out-of-the way excursion for both author and illustrator, and if Wisniewski's pictures are sometimes too weighty for Bunting's buoyant text, they are certainly splashy enough. r.s. H Peter Collington A Small Miracle (Younger) The creator of On Christmas Eve (reviewed 11/90) revisits that significant night in another masterfully executed wordless picture book. The artist's trademark sequential frames make the experience of turning the pages like watching a movie; this time it's a gripping, matter-of-factly magical story of charity and selflessness rewarded. In the midst of a bustling, prosperous contemporary village, a desperate old woman loses every-thing when she sells her sole prized possession-her accordion-and then is robbed. On her way home, she encounters the same thief attempting (c) Copyright 2010. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Booklist Review

Gr. 4 and up. With quiet restraint, Tillage tells of growing up black in the Jim Crow South, the son of North Carolina sharecroppers; then came the 1950s, and he joined the civil rights movement and marched past police, firemen, dogs, and Klansmen.

School Library Journal Review

Gr 4 Up-Tillage, the son of North Carolina sharecroppers, looks back on his experience of growing up black in the Jim Crow South. Told in simple, straightforward language, this heart-wrenching memoir was transcribed from taped recordings of Tillage's spoken story and edited with his assistance and consent. Striking black-and-white collage designs separate chapters. Audio version available from Recorded Books. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Review

Tillage, a black custodian in a Baltimore private school, reminisces about his childhood as a sharecropper's son in the South, and his youth as a civil-rights protester. He explains the mechanics of sharecropping and segregation, tells of his mistreatment and his father's murder at the hands of white teenagers out to ``have some fun,'' and relates his experiences with police dogs, fire hoses, and jail while following Martin Luther King's ideas of nonviolent protest. Tillage matter-of-factly recounts horrific events, using spare language that is laced with remarkable wisdom, compassion, and optimism. Such gentleness only gives his story more power, as he drives home the harder realities of his childhood. Although the collage illustrations are interesting, they are too moody and remote for the human spirit behind the words, and readers will regret Roth's decision--especially in light of the boy smiling so brightly on the cover--that ``even one photo would be too many for Leon Walter Tillage's words.'' (Memoir. 8-14)