Why “Leo in Bloom”?

The name “Leo in Bloom” is inspired by the children’s book, Leo the Late Bloomer written by Robert Kraus and illustrated by Jose Aruego in 1971. It follows little Leo (confusingly, a tiger and neither a lion nor a leopard), who lags behind all the other young jungle animals in basic skills and speech, until, one day, he blooms “in his own good time.”

Now, 50 years after its original publication, this perspective on delayed development or disability is certainly outdated, oversimplified, even possibly harmful. But when this book first came into our lives, when we were tiny tots in preschool and kindergarten in the mid-1980s, such concerns were far over our heads. And since then, this book holds a very special place in our sibling history.

As Danny’s older sister, I remember when his words – after a brief burgeoning – disappeared. I remember his unusual behaviors, how he would often retreat into a withdrawn world, how he would coo like a pigeon and run erratically in unconventional places. I remember the after-school meeting with my parents, walking into the dim classroom where his teachers stood at the side of the room, gazing exasperatedly on as Danny cooed and jumped from desk to desk in the mid-afternoon light. I remember the hint of solidity – “it’s called ‘autism'” – adrift on a vastness of uncertainty (what does that mean, “autism”?).

And I remember just wanting to protect my little brother. My ally. My friend. I knew he was special, not in the condescending “special needs” sense of the word, but in the “this person is so very dear to my heart and is so very unique” way. I remember feeling concerned for him. We did not know any other disabled kids, and I had never learned anything about disabilities. We were utterly without context.

So, when my kindergarten teacher read “Leo the Late Bloomer” to us, it was a revelation to me. With each page, I felt a growing resonance: “Could this be… this sounds like… wow, this could be Danny!” Danny was just a late bloomer. He was going to bloom, in his own good time! My heart felt so buoyant. He was not the only one! For the first time, I felt hope among all of the unknowns.

I couldn’t wait to tell my parents. And they bought us a copy of the book, which we still have today – it is one of Danny’s prized possessions on his bookshelf, having stayed with us through our migration from Japan and multiple relocations in San Diego. It goes in our “valuables” boxes that we prepare in case of evacuation every fire season.

I rediscovered it while packing up Danny’s room during one of those relocations about six years ago, and it evoked a visceral return to that day in kindergarten – I felt the pure wonder, the relief, the excitement of a child who has discovered something precious.

To make the name even more fitting: since gaining fluency with Danny a year ago, he’s shared with us that he is very curious about astrology (“I know it is silly, but sometimes I think there’s something to it!”). His sign: Leo. And he is, indeed, blooming like never before – having regular access to communication has vastly opened up his world, and our world as his family, in every dimension. It’s beautiful.

By Tara S. Whitty