Thursday, October 8, 2009

Leon and The Place Between

By Angela McAllister and illustrated by Grahame Baker-Smith
Templar Books, 2009
$16.99, ages 4-8, 48 pages

Do you believe in magic? You just might after reading this spellbinding book about a boy named Leon who goes to the place where magic is kept when it's not being conjured from thin air.

Across the carnival grounds, a gold tent catches Leon's eye and he slips inside with brothers Tom and Pete and sister Little Jo to witness a magic show unfold. The crowd is restless for something to happen. Tom and Pete think magic is just smoke and mirrors, but Leon knows better. "It will be magic," Leon promises. "You have to believe."

Then the lanterns go out. The tent is dark except for a few gold stars glistening on a stage curtain. There's a loud hush and a blue glow lights the curtains. As the curtains part, there is a bang and jugglers tumble out with juggling pins flying through the air. Then, just as quickly, the act stops, and the pins go up into the air and disappear.

The crowd goes wild and once again there is darkness.

This time a lamp shines on a barrel organ piping the song of a carousel as its handle turns on its own. Golden notes float to a fold-out page on the left to reveal a fantastic menagerie of mechanical toys. A performing monkey resembling a paper marionette signals to a filigree moon to illuminate the toys. Paper cut-outs of animals gallop off a carousel to an ark and a fanciful flying machine shoots sideways.

Then silence. The mechanical toys creak to a stop, the curtain closes and Leon edges forward as delicate gold stars drift about his face. "Now, he says, his eyes wide with expectation. "Now it's going to happen."

Out of a cloud of purple smoke, the master of magic, Abdul Kazam, appears in a flowing purple cape etched with mystic symbols. A pendant with an all-seeing eye and vining threads of gold hangs from his neck. Sparks fly from his fingertips, as white handkerchiefs released from his hands transform into a flock of doves.

Then Kazam asks the crowd, "Who will step into the magic?" and Leo eagerly comes forward. As Leo steps through the door of the magician's storeroom, a decorative wooden box set in front of a red tapestry, he falls into an immense space filled with violet light and hanging globes of soldered gold threads.

Leon lands on a magic flying carpet, where a boy in pantaloons greets him and takes him on a flying tour of all of the things that vanished in the magician's act, from playing cards to shadow puppets to a glamorous female assistant. But as the carpet comes to a halt, something twitches behind Leon and he discovers an illusion that he can't resist.

The storytelling and pictures in this book are so exquisite that you'd almost believe they arrived, like everything else in the magic show, by sleight of hand -- if only you'd let yourself.

McAllister writes like a magician forecasting her act to an audience -- her words, appearing on the page in vintage lettering, have a feeling of suspense and amusement, while Baker-Smith wows with fantastical illustrations that combine real photographs and painted images.

Sometimes you have to look closely to separate photos from art, as is the case with the organ's musical notes, made of images of fine gold cord. (Shiny gold threads, foil leaves and stars appear on every page, swirling about like wisps of magic.) But a few times photographic images pop from the page, like the all-seeing eye in the magician's pendant. By using a real eye, in this case, casting a sideways glance, Baker-Smith heightens the image's spectral feel.

There is so much to discover on the page -- from the similarities between the tapestry and the magic carpet to the finely painted blue swirls and objects that shimmer against dark backdrops and seem to disappear and reappear as you shift the book from side to side -- that you find yourself marveling at the details and backtracking just to make sure you haven't missed anything.

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