Award-Winning Books Dahl and Magical Picture Book Challenge 2011 Reading Themes Young Adult (YA) Literature

Do you believe in Magic? Brian Selznick’s The Houdini Box

Iphigene’s creation

When we originally conceptualized our Dahl and Magical theme, the tacit agreement was that I’d most likely take on the magical theme while my two lovely ladies (Fats and Iphigene) would deal with Dahl. Sadly, since both are beyond busy at the moment, we are gaining more headway with the magical theme. Hopefully, we can address that tiny technicality (a blogging glitch, if you may) in the coming weeks. 😉

With that introduction, it seems pretty obvious that my sharing is once again another magically-themed book, this one by an absolute favorite, the genius Brian Selznick and his “The Houdini Box.”

Fact, Fiction, and Magic. I have fallen in love with Selznick’s writing ever since The Invention of Hugo Cabret which literally cried out for me as I was running my hands through our library’s bookshelves two years back. I knew of course that I had to borrow The Houdini Box which is a mix of historical fiction, a little boy’s wide-eyed wonder over magic, and a legendary box filled with secrets – not to mention Selznick’s first published book.

As the reader remembers Harry Houdini (Eric Weiss in his private life) and his exploits across the globe, Selznick also introduces a new character, a special boy named Victor – who, like boys all around the world, have a special (bordering-on-the-morbid) fascination with magic and escapology. I love how Brian was able to capture the connection between children and magic:

Everyone was wonderstruck by Houdini, but children were especially delighted. Children want to be able to escape from 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). 

Inspired by Houdini’s daring and cunning, Victor also wanted to be a magician. So much so that his mother became increasingly concerned with his persistence in locking himself up in his grandmother’s trunk, his attempts to hold his breath for five thousand seconds while bathing, and his unsuccessful attempts to walk through walls.

Victor trying to escape from a locked trunk.
Harry Houdini and his Milk Can Escape – click on the image to be taken to the websource.

The Will to Believe. It became pretty evident that despite Victor’s desires and willingness to do whatever it takes to become a magician – he needed a mentor. As Victor and his mother went for a weekend in the country (primarily due to his mother’s exasperation with his failed experiments in magic), lo and behold, Victor saw Houdini himself in the bustling train station, purchasing tickets with his wife.

Naturally, Victor found himself gravitating towards the master magician who seemed to hold the key to all things fantastical. In a span of a few seconds, he managed to get close to Houdini to attack him with a list of seemingly-endless questions. No he is not a fan, no siree, not a stalker neither, no – just an avid, thoroughly misunderstood student of magic. Houdini was very patient and kind. He asked for Victor’s suitcase tag so that he can write to him and tell him things he can not possibly talk about in the middle of a train station: the secrets to disappearing acts, machinations behind his escapes, the eerie keys to magic itself.

And yes, the letter came indeed, with specific instructions: “A thousand secrets await you.” Who can possibly resist that?

It was Hallows’ Eve. And while it was not the stipulated time, Victor could not help himself, he just had to go to Harry Houdini’s house that very same night. Only to discover that Houdini died earlier that day. His sad wife, though, handed over a curious box that Houdini left especially for Victor. It seemed, however, that Victor “grew up” that sad evening. His will to believe crushed by the realization that the box was owned by an E.W. (the initials found on the box) – little did he know that Houdini’s real name was Eric Weiss. And so he let go of magical ways – he buried the box beneath a tangle of broken toys, rejected dreams, discarded longings – somewhere at the bottom of his closet. He would only revisit the box sometime later, when he had his own son, and rediscover something he has lost – that bit, I shall leave for you to find out. Somehow, it reminded me of one of the Poetry Friday contributions last week by Anne Tomaso who noted that “Poetry demands you return when you are different.” Perhaps the same is true with magic.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Author Notes and Resources. In the Paperback edition of The Houdini Box, Selznick has an ‘Interesting Note’ at the very end of the book where he noted that while he initially thought he only made up the story of the ‘box’ – it apparently has some Holy Grail elements to it, among magic-enthusiasts. According to Selznick:

I recently found a newspaper article, dated 1974, with the headline: “Magician’s Box Still Being Sought.” It went on to say: “[Houdini], who was born in 1874, reportedly said that on the 100th anniversary of the event, a box containing his cherished secrets would be made public…” The article also said that the box had not yet been found.

I also found a number of teacher resources for this lovely book, which I suppose is not surprising given that it is the Winner of the Texas Bluebonnet Award and the Rhode Island Children’s Book Award in 1993. ReadKiddoRead presents both a Parent Review and a Teacher Review that you can read through. There is also a downloadable powerpoint slide (an amazing 90 slides in all) compiled by a Terry Sams for The set of slides contains comprehension skills activities, a compare and contrast table that teachers can use in the classroom and an amazing list of possible workshops that could be done in class. There is also a downloadable pdf link created by Tambree Krouse – this includes journal topics, vocabulary lists, and additional websites that can be explored in connection with Selznick and Houdini.

Here is a lovely video clip of Harry Houdini and his famous rope escape. Enjoy!

PictureBook Challenge Update: 117 of 120

The Houdini Box by Brian Selznick. Aladdin Paperbacks edition, September 2001. Book borrowed from the community library. Book photos taken by me.

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

9 comments on “Do you believe in Magic? Brian Selznick’s The Houdini Box

  1. What a fabulous post! I love his books. The illustrations are amazing. I will pass on the teacher links to my co-author, Stephanie. His stories are captivating. I also love The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I can’t wait to read his newest book!


  2. I’m glad he used the same kind of illustrations that fell in love with in Hugo Cabret for The Houdini Box. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is one of the few books I actually splurged on and one of the reasons why I am a bit obsessed with picture books now. 🙂
    I first encountered Houdini in The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, he really is a fascinating guy.
    I’ll be on the look out for Cabinet of Wonders as well. 😛


    • Hi Tin, based on what I read he kind of explored and experimented with his style here in The Houdini Box and he used much of what he has learned from this first book to guide him as he finally created Hugo Cabret. I can’t wait for the movie as well. It is, after all, a Scorcese film.


  3. I have had a fascination with Houdini since I was a kid (loved that Toni Curtis movie!). I think my boys will enjoy this book. Thanks for the review/recommendation.


  4. I too loved Hugo Cabret. I loved Wonderstruck as well. I have to pull this off the library shelf and read it now. Thanks.


  5. Pingback: Carnival of Children’s Literature and Round up for October |

  6. Pingback: The 2011 Reading Challenge Round Up |

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