Leon and the Place Between discussion guide

Author: Angela McAllister

Illustrator: Grahame Baker-Smith


Leon desperately wants to convince his siblings Tom, Pete and Little Mo that magic really does exist. Acrobats, jugglers and a peculiar barrel organ entertain the crowd before purple smoke fills the stage and the famous magician, Abdul Kazam, appears.  When he volunteers to be in Abdul Kazam’s magic show, Leon is transported to a mysterious, exotic world, called the Place Between. This is a world alive with magic and filled with rabbits, playing cards, doves, coins and even a magician’s assistant! When he returns, not only do his brothers and sister believe in the power of magic, but we do too.

Reasons for selection

For readers, the magic of this book is certainly in the artwork. Sumptuous purples mix with glittering golds to create an ornate, moody, striking world of enchanting thrills and captivating, unexpected treats. Die cuts and folding pages make a surprising and enchanting addition to the story too and create a dream-like collage of numerous layers which feel three dimensional. A turn of the page causes gilded, but otherwise hidden, patterns and details to twinkle as the light catches them, which the children will really enjoy.

Due to some darker themes, this would be ideally suited to older children, from Year 4 upwards. It links perfectly with units such as ‘Stories Set in Imaginary Worlds’ and offers a variety of interesting writing opportunities. However, Key Stage One children could still undoubtedly enjoy the exciting circus and magic topic.

Overall, this is a gorgeous, sparkling story, set in a dazzling, surreal world that children will leave feeling wide-eyed, inspired and believing in magic. It’s a story about magic and having confidence and faith in yourself.

About the author and illustrator

Angela McAllister is the author of over thirty books for children and lives in Hampshire. Her books have won many awards, including the Red House Book Award for 'Yuck! That's Not a Monster!'

Grahame Baker-Smith has worked in illustration for twenty years and in 2011 won the Greenaway Medal for his inspiring, moving tale of fatherhood, FArTHER.

Before Reading

Do you dare to go into the Place Between?

Such a stunning book deserves a really magical introduction! Why not create a role play area with a circus or story-teller’s tent, using fabric, lanterns, electronic tea-lights and mysterious music? Or you could read the story dramatically to the children, wearing a magician’s cape and hat and using a torch to create shadowy, strange figures on the walls. The children will be drawn in, instantly, transported to a magical, beautiful place.   

Discussion Points

Before Reading

Cover the title of the book. Ask the children what they think the title might be and why. Reveal the title.

Follow-up prompts might include:

Have you ever been to the circus or a magic show? What did you see, smell and hear? How did you feel before the show? What magic tricks did you see and which one was your favourite? What do you think the story will be about?

First Encounters

Allow some time for the children to explore the book up to the page where Leon climbs into the box. You can use a paperclip to secure the pages so the children don’t read past this page. If it is possible for the children to have their own copy, they can read at their own pace and write down their responses. Is there anything that puzzles them about the book? Do they have any questions? Is there an image they like or dislike? Use the children’s questions to initiate a discussion – they will be more engaged if it is something they are genuinely interested in. Some questions might be answered easily, whilst others may need to be explored at a later date or after further exploration of the book.

This is an intricate book and so the children could have an independent session before the scheduled Guided Reading activity, which will allow extra time for them to pore over the book. Give them some Post-Its to jot down any ideas and allow them to quietly linger over each page.  

There are a number of themes that can be explored, including:

  • The power of magic and believing in what can’t be seen or explained
  • The use of light and shadow
  • The difference between fear and excitement
  • How we cope with the unknown
  • The use of font and text
  • How movement and stillness are used in the pictures
  • The use of contrasting colours to promote atmosphere and how the illustrations help create this atmosphere
  • The merging of collage, painting, photography and gilding – encourage the children to view the pictures in different lights

Returning to the text

At all stages, invite the children to share their ideas and responses. Avoid asking too many leading or closed questions. The prompts below are merely intended to be used as supplementary questions. Please select or adapt the questions which you think are most appropriate for the children you are working with. They will ask and answer many of their own questions if they are encouraged to look closely at the pictures and discuss their ideas.

Page 1-2: Gilded gold and flying doves

Allow the children a chance to look at this first double page – it is truly beautiful! Encourage them to look at the use of pattern and colour and how shadows effect the feeling of the composition. What materials do they think the illustrator has used to create this picture?

Pages 3-4: For my beautiful wife…

I always find reading author comments and dedications at the beginning of a book extremely interesting. They are the first things we see after the title and are often timely, reflective and inviting. They suggest the feel and contents of the book and can get the children probing and examining straight away.

For example, who are Jane and Sam? Why are Baker-Smith’s children wonderful and crazy? It’s also interesting that there are three children in the story and the illustrator has three children. What does the quote, “Wherever they are, there is Eden” mean? And finally, who is Julie and what did she do to inspire and motivate so many children? Ask the children who they would dedicate a book to if, and when, they write one.

Pages 5-6: Magic show tonight

Invite the children to share their responses to this page. This is a busy, multi-layered page which requires the children to look carefully. Give them some time to look at it on their own. They could write down on a whiteboard everything they spotted and then share it with a partner.

Questions may include:

  • How does your eye move across the page and why?
  • Which child do you think Leon is and why?
  • Look at the children’s faces. How do you think each one is feeling before the show?
  • Why is one child separate from the other three children? How has the author strengthened the idea that three of the children are reluctant to go in?
  • Where are mum and dad?
  • Why can’t we see into the tent?
  • What do you think will be in the tent?

Pages 7-8: I don’t believe in magic

Invite the children to share their thoughts about this spread. They may notice the fonts and mixture of capital and lower case letters. An interesting discussion would be why certain words are in capitals or presented in a different manner. Are you forced to read the story in a particular way? You may also wish to draw their attention to the crowd and how they are presented – in darkness with black, small, almost blank eyes.

Questions may include:

  • What does ‘the crowd waited impatiently’ suggest?
  • Why do you think the children are surrounded by light, while the crowd are smothered in shadow and darkness?
  • What do the children’s eyes tell you about how they are feeling?
  • Look at the children’s body language – do you really believe that Pete thinks ‘it’s only tricks’?

Pages 9-10: The lanterns went out

Discuss the differences between this page and the other pages in terms of colour and composition. This double spread is almost totally black with only a few stars dotted and dancing in the darkness.

Questions may include:

  • How does the use of colour and composition add to the excitement? Would it be as exciting if we saw what was on the stage?
  • What does the author mean by a ‘loud hush’? Can the children think of another oxymoron? e.g. His eyes burned with cold fire.
  • How do the author and illustrator build tension and excitement in this part of the story? (Point the children to phrases such as ‘the curtains twitched’…compare this with ‘the curtains flew open’)

Pages 11-12: With a ripple of gold braid…

Ask the children if they can see anything strange in this double page. You may wish to point them to the bordered edges of the pages and the baby’s face, the ship, butterflies, horse and shells. Could these be fragments of the magician’s life or journey overseas?

Questions may include:

  • In which direction do your eyes travel across the page and why?
  • What effect do the colours have? The blues and golds are very sumptuous, mysterious, exotic and inviting. The wide expanse of blue also makes the stage appear larger, almost as if we are being swallowed up by it.

Pages 13-14: Three jugglers

With the children, compare the movement and dizziness in this double spread with the previous two pages. The jugglers seems to be twisting and twirling through the air, whilst the use of perspective makes the skittles look like they are flying towards us. The diagonal lines also create movement.

Questions may include:

  • What effect does ‘BANG!’ have on the reader after the quietness of the previous page?
  • How do the phrases ‘loud and louder’ and ‘high and higher’ add to the sense of movement? How do they affect the speed at which we read?
  • What does the use of an ellipsis after ‘THE SKITTLES WENT UP…’ do to the flow and pace of how we read the text?
  • Why has the author written that the jugglers ‘bounced away’ and not that they ‘walked away’?

Pages 15-16: The barrel organ

Again, this double spread offers an excellent example of how the author and illustrator have worked together to build tension and atmosphere. Investigate phrases such as, ‘Everyone held their breath’ and ‘but there was no hand upon it’.

As the children fold out the page, invite them to discuss with a partner anything they see that is strange or puzzling to them.

Questions may include:

  • How does the capitalization and layout of ‘NOTE BY NOTE’ encourage you to read this phrase?
  • What sort of music do you think is ‘dancing’ from the organ?
  • Can music dance?
  • When you open the page, which mechanical animal was your eye drawn to and why?
  • Why has the book been designed so that you have to open the page before you can see the mechanical animals?

Pages 17-18: The curtains open

It may be beneficial to draw your children’s eyes to the wooden hands clapping, if they haven’t noticed them already. Why would the audience members’ hands be shown as if they were wooden, puppet hands? Who is in control?

Questions may include:

  • What does ‘no one stirred’ tell you about what the audience is doing and how they are feeling?
  • How do you think Leon is feeling?
  • What does ‘with a swish’ imply about the magician’s entrance?

Pages 19-20: Abdul Kazam!

This is very dramatic composition – the big reveal! Draw the children’s attention to the colours used and the glowing light around Abdul Kazam. Look for any repeated shapes or patterns. His cape is almost translucent, suggesting an otherworldly nature.

Questions may include:

  • Why do you think we can’t see the magician’s face fully? What effect does this have?
  • How does the capitalization and layout of ‘ABDUL KAZAM!’ encourage you to read the magician’s name? Can you use a particular action, or tone, to show this?
  • What do you think the author means by ‘Leon could smell the magic’? How can you ‘smell’ magic?

Pages 21-22: Trust nothing…

Use the ‘Think-Pair-Share’ approach to get children to discuss their ideas. Explore the children’s responses to ‘Trust nothing…but believe everything!’ What does this mean?

Questions may include:

  • What does the phrase ‘at a whispered word’ suggest about Abdul Kazam, his character and the power he has?
  • How has movement been created in this part of the story? Discuss the use of verbs (blossomed, poured, turned etc) and the diagonal positioning of the magician.
  • Why isn’t the magician standing upright as ‘the magic began’? He looks like he is toppling over due to the sheer force of the magic.

Pages 23-24: Into the box…

Questions may include:

  • What is the difference between ‘Who will step into the magic?’ and ‘Who will step into the magic box?’?
  • What do you think each of the children are thinking and feeling as Leon steps into the box? Pay attention to Leon’s eyes and facial expression.
  • What do you think is going through the magician’s mind as Leon steps into the box?
  • What do you think will happen next?

Pages 25-26: Falling…

Purple is actually the hardest colour for the eye to discriminate, meaning that we are intimately involved in Leon’s journey and drawn in, as we are forced to squint and peer closer and closer at the scene to pick out any detail.

Questions may include:

  • What is the effect of the missing rectangle on this page?
  • Where do you think Leon is?
  • How do you think he is feeling? What do you think he can hear, see, smell?
  • Does the magician’s facial expression add anything to the composition?

Pages 27-28: The boy

A boy in blue pantaloons trousers whisks Leon away to the Place Between.

Questions may include:

  • Why do you think Leon is covering his face with his hands?
  • Is there anything strange about how the boy introduces himself to Leon? It’s almost as if he’s expecting him!
  • Who is the boy? Where has he come from?
  • Do you know any other stories where a character flies on a magic carpet?

Pages 29-30: Off they flew

Encourage the children to discuss what they see by making a frame with their hands and moving it over the images. They could make a list on a whiteboard of all the unexpected things Leon sees.

Questions may include:

  • How does the composition suggest the feeling of swooping and flying?
  • Why do you think all these objects and thingamies are here? Where did they come from?
  • Do you know any stories with these magic characters in?

Pages 31-32: The white rabbit

Give the children time to read the dialogue in pairs and act out the exchange between the two boys.

Questions may include:

  • How is Leon feeling at this point in the story?
  • What is the difference between ‘The carpet came to rest’ and ‘The boy brought the carpet to a rest’?
  • Who do you think the boy’s father is?
  • Where has the rabbit come from?
  • How do you think the boy feels towards the rabbit? Why?

Pages 33-34: Leon, return…

Invite the children to create a freeze frame of this scene, paying particular attention to the facial expressions of the two boys as they say goodbye to one another.

Questions may include:

  • Who do you think is calling Leon? How do you think they are reaching him? (Look at the magical lute)
  • How does the use of capitalization in the phrase ‘Leon, come back to us. LEON RETURN…’ suggest we should read it?

Pages 35-36: The magic lift

Discuss how Leon might be feeling as he returns. What, or who, might he miss? What might he say to his brothers and sister?

Pages 37-38: A sharp tap

Draw the children’s attention to the blue and gold swirls of colour surrounding Leon. What do they suggest?

Questions may include:

  • How do you think Pete, Tom and Little Mo are feeling?
  • What do you notice about where the doves are positioned now?
  • Why do you think Leon’s family clapped ‘loudest of all’?
  • What do you notice about how Abdul Kazam’s face is lit in this spread, compared to the others? Why do you think this might be?

Pages 39-40: Did you really disappear?

Questions may include:

How have the characters changed over the course of the story? Can you use evidence from the text to explain your ideas?

What do you notice about how the children are presented on this page? (They are close together, smiling) How does this differ from the first double spread and how the children are positioned? Do you think their relationship has changed?

Pages 41-42: Watching over you

Ask the children to review the story, discuss the composition on this double spread and discuss the symbolism of Abdul Kazam in the sky watching over the children and the inclusion of the white dove and rabbit. Have your class noticed the stars dancing out from the entrance of the tent, following the children? What might this represent?

After reading

Do you believe in magic?

Using your understanding of what has happened, can you create a timeline or story map of events?

Does this story remind you of any other books with similar themes?

Writing opportunities

There are many writing opportunities which can be linked to the story. Children could write an instruction guide detailing how to care for the rabbit or pen a letter to Abdul Kazam persuading him to return to perform a show.

Voyage and return stories

Discuss and explore other narratives which follow what Christopher Booker calls a ‘voyage and return’ plot, such as ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ by Maurice Sedak, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll or ‘The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe’ by C.S Lewis.  

The Magic Box by Kit Wright

Use this poem, which is full of magical moments, experiences and amazing events, to inspire the children to write their own magical list poem in the same style.

A Moving Circus Fairground

In DT, investigate levers, cam mechanisms, pulleys and how to use an electric motor to plan and create a moving fairground ride.


Read and compare ‘Leon and the Place Between’ with Grahame Baker-Smith’s other bewitching, dream-like story, ‘FArTHER’. Are there any similarities in the themes they present or in the style of the artwork, photo manipulation and collages used?

Card tricks

Encourage the children to use cards and dominoes to rehearse their number bonds and times tables. The Mathematics Shed http://www.mathematicshed.com) has a variety of Maths Card Games to help children practise addition, subtraction and multiplication and improve their fluency and speed when re-calling number facts.

Rob Gonsalves

With your class, explore the beautiful work of Canadian artist Rob Gonsalves, whose work is famous for its magic realism and mind-bending optical illusions. Images melt into one another and create strange dream worlds, playing with the viewer’s minds and perceptions. They will force your children to question, explore, talk and problem-solve.

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