Real Magic

Real Magic by Susan Fry


Leon and the Place Between, written by Angela McAllister and illustrated by Grahame Baker-Smith.

What makes a book truly magical? In the case of Leon and the Place Between, written by Angela McAllister and illustrated by Grahame Baker-Smith, it’s the combination of a compelling story, beautifully written text, and enthralling, fantastically original illustrations.

It also helps that the book is actually about magic.

Leon and his siblings enter the tent of a carnival’s magic show. The magician, an impressively mustached and purple-cloaked Abdul Kazam, brings out a box. “Who will step into the magic?” he asks the audience. Leon eagerly walks into the box and falls into a different world, one with a purple-and-black sky and glittering stars. He lands on a flying carpet, where a boy tells him he’s arrived in “The Place Between.” This is where magicians send all the objects that “disappear” during magic shows — balls, coins, rabbits, and even the boy himself, who is a magician’s son. When Abdul Kazam calls Leon back to the real world, Leon tells his astonished siblings that “Anyone who believes” can go to “The Place Between.”

Leon and the Place Between is good even for younger children. The story is simple, and nothing bad happens. Even the one potentially eerie element – a rabbit that had to stay in “The Place Between” because it was never called back – resolves happily. Leon carries the rabbit into the real world with him as a pet.

This doesn’t mean the book is a jolly, Harry-Potteresque romp. The illustrations may frighten even as they enchant. The people are stylized, with unusual, angular faces. The world surrounding them, on the other hand, is hyper-real. You can see every hair on the rabbit’s fur, for example, and the grass the children sit on could have come from a photograph. The juxtaposition of these vastly different styles gives the book an otherworldly, menacing atmosphere.

But each page is also exquisite. Gold filigree, glimmering stars, and ornate tapestries fill the book with vibrant colors and luxurious textures. Baker-Smith layers images on top of each other, collage-style, to give the pages depth and texture. Even the text is beautiful. The authors aren’t afraid to play with fonts, mixing regular serifs with the elaborate letters found on the sides of circus trains.

Angela McAllister also isn’t afraid to take her time with the story. She describes every moment in such detail that children will believe they’re actually experiencing the events: “The lanterns went out. In the darkness, the crowd fidgeted with excitement. There was a cough, a whisper, and then A LOUD HUSH. At last a soft blue glow lit the stage, and the curtains twitched.”

And that’s just the beginning of the show.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications. You will find links to all of her children’s book reviews on our Toys & Books page.

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