The Houdini Box

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Ten year old Victor loves Houdini. In fact, Victor wants to be a magician when he grows up, just like Houdini. For good measure, he is starting to practice now: he locks himself in his grandmother’s trunk, walks into walls, and tries to hold his breath while taking a bath. None of this goes over well with his mother.  But Victor’s life is changed when a visit to the country brings him face to face with his idol – the very Houdini, himself.

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While you can’t always judge a book by its cover, I’d say this one is a safe bet.  The overly, colored, bright blue eyes of Houdini stare out disconcertingly. It’s creepy. And so is the book.  The story is, for the most part, nicely done, and who can argue with the black and white sketch drawings of Selznick? So why the “creepy” rating? At one point in the story, the grown up Victor finds himself chasing a baseball (hit by his son) into a graveyard. But a strange twist of fate, the ball is found on – wait for it – Houdini’s grave. The headstone provides a clue for Victor to unlock his secret box. The scenario is just too weird for me. That is, until I read the several “appendices” to the story: “An Interesting Note,” “A Brief Biography of Houdini,”  and “The Sign.” Now it all makes sense.

Apparently Houdini’s wife held seances for 10 years after his death in hopes they might keep their promise to each of contacting each other from beyond the grave. This is explained in too much detail for my comfort, let alone for a young child.  As well, Selznick mentions in “The Sign” that by some twist of fate he stepped on a “Care” sign (a perpetual care marker for the groundskeeper) and believes it to be a sign from Houdini. “I loved how simple and direct it was. It was like a command…as if Houdini, in his wisdom, had taken something as simple as this small word and filled it with importance and mystery. And what an important lesson it seemed to teach…” At which point Selznick carries on, in great specificities, about the very vague command, “care.”

It’s too much and crosses the line in attempting to peak the curiosity about things better left alone.

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  • Author: Brian Selznick
  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers; 1 edition (October 7, 2008)
  • Hardcover: 80 pages
  • Reading Age: Ages 7 and up

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What You Need to Know

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  • Role Models/Authority Figures - Victor is a diligent boy who works hard for something he wants. Houdini is his idol.
  • Violence - Victor repeatedly gets himself locked up in his grandmother’s trunk. As the parent, I kept hearing all those warnings about locks and trunks and freezer doors echo through my memory. I can’t say the kids would think of that – my kids didn’t want to touch the book, so I couldn’t ask.
  • Sexual Content - None.
  • Language - None.
  • Consumerism - Certainly peaks the interest in Houdini. Selznick provides references for further reading in the back of the book.
  • Drinking/Smoking/Drugs - None.
  • Religion - It seems Houdini left Victor a sign on the headstone. From “A Brief Biography of Houdini” Selznick penned and placed in the back of the book: Houdini and his wife make a pact to contact each other from beyond the grave. During his life, Houdini attempted to contact people from beyond the grave (blew the cover on a lot of “spiritualists”). His wife had seances for 10 years after his death in an attempt to contact him. Selznick believes Houdini left him a sign.
  • Other - The book also includes Selznick’s “Creating The Houdini Box,” “Researching the Houdini Box, “Early Sketches,” and “Magic Tricks”. The latter is harmless, and includes a diagram on how to pretend your thumb was cut off.
  • Awards - The Texas Bluebonnet Award (1993), The Rhode Island Children’s Book Award (1993)

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The Invention of Hugo Cabret

[box type="info" style="rounded"] This book has been made into athe motion picture “Hugo”.[/box]

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Twelve year old Hugo Cabret lives in a secret apartment in the walls of a Paris train station.  His father has died and his drunk uncle has gone missing, so young Hugo maintains the clocks of the busy train station on his own. To survive, he must steal his food. To rebuild his secret, he must steal toys. His secret life is threatened, though, when one day he is caught stealing by the crotchety old toy store manager. But Hugo isn’t the only one with secrets.  The toy store manager has a secret, as does his god-daughter Isabelle. And there is a secret apartment, a secret history, a secret key, a secret notebook, and a mysterious drawing. And behind it all, a mysterious and broken automaton. Can Hugo’s mechanical genius fix the automaton? And if he can, what is the message the automaton is waiting to deliver, pen in hand?

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The Invention of Hugo Cabret is intriguing in that it is part novel, part picture book, part graphic novel, and part silent film. It is an admirable attempt at blending the world of the novel with that of the increasingly popular graphic novel. But this is a , after all, and the writing is weak. The characters come off as somewhat flat and underdeveloped.  When they are not flat, the young characters are talented liars and thieves.  Throughout the novel, both Hugo and his friend Isabelle are constantly stealing, sneaking, and lying their way into or out of any one situation without suffering any negative consequences. The pictures are stunning and interesting to look at, but I found they frequently interrupted the movement of the storyline.  A question of style, to be sure.  All in all, it is an easy and entertaining read.

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  • Author: Brian Selznick
  • Publisher: Scholastic Press (January 2007)
  • Publisher Reading Age: Ages 9 and up
  • Hardcover 533 pages

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What You Need to Know

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  • Role Models/Authority Figures – Hugo steals “which he hated more than anything, but sometimes it was the only way to get anything to eat.” (127). Thus he “tries not to steal anything he thought people needed…Sometimes he allowed himself to steal fresh bottles of milk or pastries…The toys, of course, had been an obvious exception to his rule.” (142) His friend Isabelle also steals (a key from her godmother, Mama Jeanne), and sneaks. As well, the two friends set up a surprise visit for Isabelle’s godfather (Georges Melies) without him knowing - and very much against his wife’s (Jeanne’s) wishes. Of course, this is for Papa Georges’ own good and Mama Jeanne reluctantly acquiesces. Rarely does the thieving result in a negative consequence, and none of the sneaking does.
  • Violence – Hugo’s uncle is found in the bottom of the river. His father dies in a museum fire.
  • Sexual Content – None.
  • Language – None.
  • Consumerism – The name of the films mentioned are real films.
  • Drinking/Smoking/Drugs – Hugo’s uncle is a drunk and goes missing early in the novel.
  • Religion – Some discussion of the purpose of the life. “Did you ever notice that all machines are made for some reason? They are built to make you laugh…or to tell time…or to fill you with wonder…Maybe that’s why a broken machine always makes me a little sad. because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do…Maybe its the same with people…if you lose your purpose…its like you’re broken.” (374) “Sometimes…I like to imagine that the world is one big machine. You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.” (378)
  • Other – Papa Georges is loosely based on real life Georges Melies. Some of the pictures in the book are images from early films, including Msr Melies’ “A Trip to the Moon.”
  • Awards – 2008 Caldecott Winner, Quill Award

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