Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Houdini Box

While browsing through children’s books at Copperfield’s, looking for books for “a book on every bed”, I came across a book for older elementary kids called Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick. It is the story of two children,  Ben and Rose, separated in time by fifty years. Ben’s story is told in prose and Rose’s story is told in pictures. Their stories eventually intertwine. It was such an unique way of telling a story, I had to do some research on the author.Wonderstruck


I found that he had received the Caldecott Medal for picture books in 2008 for a book that was 550 pages long. The Invention of Hugo Cabaret is about 12 year old Hugo who is an orphan clock keeper who lives in the walls of a Paris train station. Before his death, his father showed him a discarded automaton: a human-like figure seated at a desk, pen in hand, ready to write. Hugo’s father, a clockmaker, was trying to repair the robot. After his death, Hugo becomes obsessed with trying to get it to work. The story is told in prose and pictures which do not just illustrate the story but actually tell a good part of the story. The movie, Hugo, which is in current release is based on this book.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret detail from Hugo

Meanwhile, on another trip to Copperfield’s, I find a book Brian Selznick wrote in 1991 called The Houdini Box. I have a son-in-law who has a a bit of an obsession with magic and I imagined him as the boy in this story. The boy’s name is Victor. He is ten and wants to be a magician too. He has read about Houdini’s magic tricks and he tries them at home but he cannot summon the magic to make them work. He locks himself in his grandmother’s train trunk but cannot escape no matter how many times he tries.

One day Victor is in the train station on the way to a weekend in the country when he spots Houdini and his wife. He runs up to Houdini and tells him he wants to be a magician and  asks him how to do the tricks he has been trying at home. Houdini promises to write him a letter with the answers. Victor waits for a reply and finally he gets a letter that says “A thousand secrets await you, come to my home” on a date that seemed impossibly in the future. Victor was impatient, so he went to Houdini’s home that evening, which happened to be Halloween. When he got there Mrs. Houdini thought he was trick or treating, but he showed her the letter. She disappeared and came back with a box and told him that Houdini had died that day. Victor took the box home and tried to open it. He noticed that the initials on the bottom of the box said E.W.; it was not Houdini’s box after all. So Victor put the box away and vowed to never think about Houdini again.

Years passed, he got married and had a son named Harry (a coincidence, I am sure). One day Victor and Harry were playing ball in a lot near the cemetery. Victor pitched the ball to Harry and Harry hit it into the cemetery. Father and son went to retrieve the ball. Perhaps by magic,  it had landed on Harry Houdini’s grave. Victor read the writing on the monument. It said HOUDINI and under that it said Ehrich Weiss: E.W. Before he was Houdini, the magician had been Ehrich Weiss. That night, after his wife and son had gone to bed Victor found the box. The lock had rusted and was easy to open. He locked himself in his grandmother’s trunk and escaped in under 20 seconds.

Legend has it that there actually was a Houdini Box. It was supposed to appear on the 100th anniversary of Houdini’s birth which was in 1974. At the end of the book is a brief biography of Harry Houdini, a magic trick and a little about the process of writing the book. Mr. Selznick also includes a list of books written about Houdini for children.

The Houdini Box Victor

This book is appropriate for a child from 6-11 who is fascinated by magic.

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