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The Houdini Box, Written and illustrated by Brian Selznick

The Houdini BoxThe Houdini Box
Written and illustrated by Brian Selznick
Atheneum; $17.99
80 pp.; ISBN-13: 978-1416968788

Review by Amy Brozio-Andrews

In this poignant yet exciting new book by Caldecott Medal-winning writer and illustrator Brian Seltzer, elements of mystery and historical fiction combine in a real page-turner.

Young Victor is simply fascinated by everything that his hero, the world-famous magician Harry Houdini, does. Time and time again, he tries to replicate Houdini’s tricks, only to be thwarted at every turn. So much for trying to hold his breath for five thousand seconds in the tub — his mother made him get out and breathe. So much for trying to escape a locked suitcase — poor mom had to come let him out. And forget about trying to walk through a wall; it just wasn’t going to happen. Victor’s poor mother was so frustrated by her son’s constant attempts at recreating Houdini’s tricks that she decides to send him to visit his aunt for a bit.

A chance meeting with the famed magician himself at the train station changes Victor’s life. Victor lays out his admiration of Harry Houdini and his desire to be just like him. Houdini whispers that he can’t reveal all in the middle of a train station but takes Victor’s name and address and promises to write before disappearing into the crowd. When Victor finally receives a letter inviting him to Houdini’s house, he leaves immediately and is crushed to arrive at the door and find Houdini died that day. He shows Mrs. Houdini the note from her husband and she give him a small box.

When Victor takes it home to open it, he sees the initals E.W. inscribed on the box. Shattered by what he feels is a deception — that can’t be Houdini’s box! he thinks — Victor shoves it into his closet and swears off his admiration of Houdini forever. Until a chance encounter many years later while playing ball when his son Harry (after a family relative, of course) suggests to Victor that maybe Houdini had one more secret to share with him after all…

Brian Selznick’s highly illustrated book has an economy of words that makes every phrase, every sentence, meaningful; his narrative moves the story forward quickly yet in such a way that the story really stays with the reader. He makes the reader feel acutely Victor’s rush of admiration when he meets Houdini, the crush of disappointment when he thinks his idol may not be who he thought, and the soar of hope that comes with that unexpected revelation that Harry Houdini was born Ehrich Weiss — E.W.

Based heavily on the real-life accomplishments of Harry Houdini, Selznick does take a few liberties in favor of the plot, as revealed in a fascinating section of notes included in the back of the book. Selznick’s notes also touch on the alleged existence of a real Houdini box, a brief biography of the famous magician, and the origination of The Houdini Box as a school project of Selznick’s when he was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, including how he did his research for the book and some early illustrations.

The artwork is simply beautiful, almost photographic in its black and white lines and shading. The story is a visually powerful as it is narratively moving; the entire effect is almost nostalgic. For fans of magic and any reader with even a passing interest in Harry Houdini, The Houdini Box is a lovely and memorable book. It’s that special kind of book, a just-plain-good story that is appealing to children and adults alike, a high interest choice for independent reading and a great story for sharing as a family as well.