What parents need to know
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.
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?