The Amazing Adventures of John Smith, Jr., aka Houdini Book Poster Image

The Amazing Adventures of John Smith, Jr., aka Houdini



Relatable, realistic story of a teen boy in a rough 'hood.

What parents need to know

Educational value

Like Houdini, readers might be inspired to write a story themselves. He talks a bit about how he's approaching his novel and techniques he's trying. 

Positive messages

Houdini, his family, and his friends have strong moral backbones: They see the value of doing the right thing. (For the most part -- these are teens, after all.) Creativity, optimism, and an appreciation of basic decency help see these kids through their troubles.

Positive role models

Houdini and his friends are the kind of kids you know are going to turn out all right: They look out for a neighbor most people revile and are fiercely loyal. Houdini's close family includes his brother, the classic football hero turned war hero, and his hardworking parents are willing to go the extra mile to help someone out. Houdini has great empathy for his parents: He wishes they had better working conditions rather than being embarrassed about how they scrape together a living. The teens do carry out a calculated revenge plot, but even then they're rather considerate of the boy they target.


The threat of violence -- at the hands of fathers, bullies, and even neighbors -- permeates the book. One teen is hurt when another hides metal bins in a pile of leaves they're jumping in. There are references to a bully beating a kid with a bat, violent urban legends surrounding a neighbor, and ways kids might physically get revenge on each other. War figures prominently, through peripherally: Houdini's older brother is wounded in Iraq and Old Man Jackson lost his arm in Vietnam.


"No explicit sex" is one of the ground rules for the novel Houdini is wirting. However, there are references to a politician cheating on his wife, attractive girls, and a mother who has an abundance of boyfriends. In a revenge scheme, Houdini and his friends lure a bully by telling him they'll help him "get a shot" at an attractive classmate.


There's little offensive language, but at the outset the narrator lays out stand-ins for obscenities, including "jackass," "freaking," and "damn" -- and those substitutes are sprinkled liberally throughout the story.


Very occasional references to brand names, including Wiis, iPhones, Domino's, Bengay, and Lexus.

Drinking, drugs, & smoking

One teen offers liquor to others, who decline, and proceeds to get drunk himself. A few characters have alcoholic parents. There are references to a crack house and smoking pot, but none of the main characters use illicit substances. Houdini's dad smokes but warns his son never to smoke.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that Houdini lives in a scrappy part of town: Families here tend to be dysfunctional to outright abusive, and all are struggling to make ends meet. It's a realistic depiction of a certain type neighborhood, but it might a little too real-world for young readers. There's an undercurrent of violence -- abusive parents, neighborhood bullies, and the war in Iraq -- along with sexual innuendo and references to drugs and drinking.

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What's the story?

Thirteen-year-old John Smith Jr. -- aka Houdini -- is writing a novel based on his family and friends in a rough-around-the-edges neighborhood in Providence, RI, hoping it might pave the way to riches. As he writes, he finds himself learning more than he expected about himself, his family, and his friends and neighbors. Houdini starts a leaf-raking enterprise with his friends, gets to know an intimidating neighbor, tries to deal with a bully, and copes with his father's unemployment and his brother's service in Iraq. His revered brother, Franklin, is reported missing, then turns up safe but wounded. When he comes home, he's different from the brother Houdini knew. Houdini realizes, however, that his brother isn't the only one who's changed.

Is it any good?


There's a lot to like in this yarn: an engaging hero, a colorful setting peopled with relatable characters, a grounded realism. Author Peter Johnson aims squarely at boys, who probably will nod in agreement with his depiction of a teen boy's world. The publisher recommends it for ages 8 and up, but quite a bit of the content -- references to drugs and alcohol, some sexual innuendo, rude language -- push the reading level higher for most kids.

The narrator, firmly in the fold of a loving, solid family, acts as a safe bridge into a tough environment. He's a great kid, doing the best he can given the circumstances. The supporting characters stretch reality, including a golden-boy older brother and a cartoonishly sleazy politician. Unfortunately, the story putters to a stop after the requisite acknowledgment of Houdini's personal growth: It's a bit of letdown after getting caught up in this boy's life.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the depiction of teens in the novel. Does it ring true?

  • Houdini starts off critical of an adult author who wrote a story from a 13-year-old's point of view, saying it wasn't convincing. Do you think the adult author of this book succeeds?

  • Does substituting less offensive phrases for obscenities get in the way of the story, or does that approach work?

Book details

Author:Peter Johnson
Genre:Coming of Age
Topics:Brothers and sisters, Friendship, Misfits and underdogs
Book type:Fiction
Publication date:January 24, 2012
Number of pages:176
Publisher's recommended age(s):8 - 12

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