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A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
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.
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.
Violence & Scariness
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.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
"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.
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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.
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Products & Purchases
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.
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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.
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.
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.