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For Readers Age 9 - 12
Grades 4th - 8th
 

The Houdini Box - Review
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Publisher's Description:

Selznick, Brian. (2008) The Houdini Box. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon and Schuster. ISBN 10: 1-4169-6878-4

Open this book and come face-to-face with the greatest magician of all time: Harry Houdini!

Victor is forever trying to escape from locked trunks, to walk through walls, and to perform any number of Houdini's astonishing magic tricks...without success. Then — amazingly — he meets his idol and begs Houdini to explain himself. A mysterious, locked box is the only answer, and Victor is left to wonder: Does the box contain the secrets of the most famous magic tricks ever performed?

From the creator of the Caldecott Medal-winning bestseller The Invention of Hugo Cabret comes this magical storybook that combines captivating mystery with mesmerizing historical fiction. Now, as a bonus at the end of the book, you will find a biographical note about Houdini, an illustrated magic trick, never-before-seen sketches by Brian Selznick, and more. The Houdini Box conjures up the pure pleasure of an old-time magic show.

Respect for self and others:This includes integrity (adherence to a code of conduct or value system), honesty vs. manipulation or lying, compassion, caring for others (characters not focused on getting their way no matter what) self respect--main character does not let others denigrate him or her; use of self control and self-discipline ; taking charge of own behaviour; fairness to others (such as taking turns and avoiding the blame game). Reader should ask themselves “How does the protagonist depict their peers?” “Would you want others to treat you this way? Should everyone act this way?” This includes true friendships that do not involve regular lying, deceit or manipulation; considering consequences of actions prior to acting; owning up to responsibility once an action has been taken.

The book’s discussion focuses on the boy Victor with only small attention to other characters. However, Victor’s integrity and values show in what he does NOT do. Victor practices his magic tricks honestly without lying or manipulating adults to do so. When he is disappointed, he does not engage in any self-denigrating behavior. He does not attempt to manipulate in order to meet or visit Houdini.

Portrayal of Authority figures:The positive portrayal of parents, teachers, police officers and other “good” authority figures common in a child’s life is a positive influence upon the child’s own moral development. This includes actively-parenting mother and father figures. Minimization of parental involvement in the character’s activities or the portrayal of authority figures as inferior present poor role models. Also to be avoided are main characters that deceive parents and teachers to accomplish goals, and overuse sarcasm towards authority figures. Ask yourself “Are parents seen as positive or negative influence in the character's life?”

Authority figures are respected and portrayed as expected for the era. Victor’s mother repeatedly rescues him from his failed attempts at magic tricks and presumably nags him as good mothers do. Rather than digress negatively on the failed vacation to Aunt Harriett’s in the country, Selznick humorously states “Aunt Harriet was not sad they left”. Simple sentences that say everything, while still leaving much to the imagination. Adults are in charge.

Citizenship and Patriotism:Loyalty to family, team or group, school, community and world; caring for and being considerate of these groups. Pride to be part of that group or nationality.

Belonging to a group is not integral to the plot. However, satisfaction and caring for the family is implied by the behaviours demonstrated between characters. Once grown, Victor names his own son after Aunt Harriett and spends time with him. 

Justice and Balance:a just distribution between good and evil (with good outweighing evil in the presence of the storyline); demonstration of right and wrong; making decisions to enact the above values rather than simply choosing from two bad possibilities; Ask yourself “Is the emphasis on the positive elements or negative?”

Again, the storyline is simple, has no conflict and focused on good: Victor’s self-discipline to pursue his passion for magic, Houdini’s death birthing new life through Victor brings closure and satisfaction.

Aesthetic Aspects of Life Experience:Look for a storyline portrayal of beauty, health, and selfless love vs. hedonistic behaviours (sexuality, selfishness, obsessiveness, materialism), profanity, gore and violence. Are nature and environment respected or exploited? Look for dark elements; watch out for humor that is negative, denigrates others excessively, uses metaphors to denigrate the sacred.

As we would expect of Selznick’s work, the illustrations show us the action and emotions taking place. It is complemented with posters and pictures of the era, plus includes a biography on Houdini, a list of sources for more information, and other extra features at the end. As a historical fiction, the historical elements are smoothly interwoven to create a sense of nostalgia. 

Other Things to Consider:Other aspects of this book of interest or importance. For example, does it portray Wiccan practices and accurate use of tools of which some parents might object, does it contain hidden meanings in metaphors that may prove offensive to some families; does it address personal issues such as puberty or pregnancy.

No other considerations. Recommended for ages 9-12; parents of very young children reading this book should ensure the child does not attempt any of these tricks on their own. We highly recommend this book for the entire family to read together!

So what do YOU think? Read our thoughts on the book and join in the discussion at the Litland Reviews blog!

 

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