The Houdini Box

Book review by
Matt Berman, Common Sense Media
The Houdini Box Book Poster Image
Lightweight story with great illustrations.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Violence & Scariness

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that there is nothing to be concerned about here. The cover picture might scare some very young and sensitive children.

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What's the story?

Victor is obsessed with Harry Houdini, and wants to be a magician like him. He tries to do the things Houdini does, but with no success. One day he accidentally meets Houdini in a train station, and the great man invites the boy to visit. But the night Victor goes to his house is the night Houdini has died. His widow gives Victor a locked box with the initials E. W. on it. Victor, unable to open the box and thinking it did not belong to Houdini, puts it away in his closet and tries to forget his dreams. But years later, when he has a son of his own, he learns who E. W. really was. Includes a brief biography, how the author wrote the book, early sketches, further reading suggestions, and instructions for a less than impressive magic trick.

Is it any good?

The strength of this reissue of Brian Selznick's first book (with new notes about Houdini, magic, and the creation of the book) is the illustrations. Selznick is the genius behind The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures. Done in b&w crosshatching, they are rich, detailed, and occasionally impart emotional content not in the text. Selznick is truly one of our most brilliant and clever illustrators.

The text, however, is merely so-so, and requires a suspension of disbelief that not every reader will be willing to make -- that Houdini's wife would give a child she'd never met, who had no relationship with her husband, his box of secrets, and that the child would so easily drop his dreams. But it's a pleasant enough story, and the boy's obsession is both amusing and will be recognizable to young readers. And it may even encourage kids to learn more about Houdini.

From the Book:
Houdini was a magician. He could pull rabbits from hats, make elephants disappear, and do a thousand card tricks. Locks would fall open at his fingertips, and he could escape from ropes and chains and cabinets and coffins. Police from around the world couldn't keep him in their jails, and the oceans and the seas couldn't drown him. Bolt Houdini into a metal box and throw him in the water; he will escape. Lock him up in a jail, handcuffed and helpless, in any city in the world -- Moscow, New York, Vienna, Paris, or Providence; Houdini will escape.

Everyone was wonderstruck by Houdini, but children were especially delighted. Children want to be able to escape their rooms when they are sent there for being bad. They want to make their dinners disappear and their parents vanish. They want to pull candy from their pockets without putting any in, turn their sisters into puppies and their brothers into frogs (although some children want to turn their puppies and frogs into sisters and brothers). Children liked Houdini because he could do the unexplainable things that they wanted to do. Houdini was a magician. Magicians can do anything.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Houdini. Why is he considered the greatest magician? Why might a kid be so obsessed with him? Why has his fame lasted so long? Kids who read this may want to know more -- see the resources in the Other Choices section.

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