Awed by the feats of escape artist Harry Houdini, ten-year-old Victor aspires to be a magician, too. When he was eight, Victor read about Houdini's escape from an iron milk can in under twenty seconds. Locking himself inside his grandmother's trunk, Victor was unable to duplicate Houdini's success, and his mother had to rescue him. Since then, Victor has tried, just like the great magician, to hold his breath for 5,000 seconds, and to walk through walls, but success has eluded him.
Heading for a week in the country to visit his aunt, Victor is stunned to see Houdini himself at the train station. He pummels the man with questions about magic, and Houdini promises to send him a letter. He keeps his promise, sending the boy an invitation to meet with him, with the words "A thousand secrets await you." Victor shows up at Houdini's house that very evening. Alas, Mrs. Houdini tells him, "Houdini died today," and hands him a small locked box. Discovering the initials E.W. engraved on the bottom of the box, Victor assumes the box is not Houdini's, and he buries it at the bottom of his closet, vowing never to think about him again. It's not until he is an adult, married, with a son of his own (named Harry), that Victor learns the truth about the box and the man who gave it to him.
The first time I read this book, back in 1991, I was captivated by the verve and mystery of the story and awed by the many whimsical full-page, cross-hatched black and white pen drawings. It was Brian Selznick's very first book, and I've been following his magnificent career ever since, cheering when he won a Caldecott Honor for his illustrations in Barbara Kerley's The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins and literally jumping up and down with joy when he won the Caldecott Medal in 2008 for his masterpiece, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a 500-page illustrated novel.
This rerelease of The Houdini Box includes an essay about how and why he wrote it, information on how he researched the facts behind it, reproductions of early sketches you can compare with the finished illustrations, a brief biography of Houdini, and a bibliography. He recommends an interesting website, www.houdinitribute.com/links.html, with links to dozens of Houdini-related sites, including his New York Times obituary.
Reviewed by JF.
THEMES: HISTORICAL FICTION. MAGIC & MAGICIANS.
Suggested Ages: 6-10