August 17, 2017

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We’re Just Wild About Harry | Nonfiction Booktalker

Master magician Harry Houdini still fascinates and mystifies kids of all ages

Wherever I go to do a booktalk, children still know his name. Not his real name, but the name he gave himself, the name that still haunts, fascinates, and mystifies: Harry Houdini.

What razzle-dazzle fixed the name Houdini in the public memory so firmly that it’s still remembered more than 80 years after his final disappearing act? Sid Fleischman tells us in Escape! The Story of the Great Houdini (Greenwillow, 2006). Houdini was born Erich Weiss in Hungary, immigrating to America as a small child. His rabbi father chose an unlikely place to make a living: Appleton, WI. The family was horribly poor. Young Erich did anything he could to bring in money: acrobatics and card tricks on the sidewalk, cutting fabric in a necktie factory, and working as an apprentice to a locksmith (where he likely learned some useful tricks).

Houdini was a lover of libraries. He studied the history of magic and taught himself to do grander and more elaborate tricks. For a time he worked in traveling circuses and cheap “Dime Shows” across the country. When Houdini was 21, his experience working for a locksmith finally paid off. When he arrived in a new town, Houdini would ask the local police to bring in their best handcuffs; he usually slipped out of them in less than a minute. That feat always attracted attention, was usually written up in the town’s paper, and lured in hundreds of paying people to see the magic show the next day.

Houdini started escaping from prison cells, from straitjackets, from padlocked milk cans filled with water. He practiced holding his breath so he could stay underwater for what seemed an impossibly long time. Some of his tricks were so good and so original that no one has figured out how he pulled them off.

Fleischman was a young magician in California in the 1930s when he met Houdini’s widow, Bess. Nobody tells the story better, but what I love to do in a booktalk about any compelling subject is to bring in a pile of wonderful books on different reading levels and let the kids choose their own.

Younger children will love Kathleen Krull’s Houdini: World’s Greatest Mystery Man and Escape King (Walker, 2005), with its dazzling illustrations by Eric Velasquez showing some of the master escapologist’s most famous tricks, as well as David and Michael Adler’s A Picture Book of Harry Houdini (Holiday House, 2009), which has excellent pictures by Matt Collins, one of which shows the notorious punch to the stomach that ultimately killed the great man on Halloween 1926. Be sure to include The Houdini Box by Brian Selznick (Atheneum, 2008). Victor idolizes the great magician and tries unsuccessfully to perform his tricks. When the boy runs into him on a train platform and peppers him with questions, Houdini makes an appointment to meet with him—which it turns out he is unable to keep. But the boy gets a great consolation prize.

Older readers will delight in Tom Lalicki’s Spellbinder: The Life of Harry Houdini (Holiday House, 2000), as well as Lalicki’s fictitious “Houdini and Nate” series, starting with Shots at Sea (Farrar, 2007). Be sure to include Jason Lutes and Nick Bertozzi’s Houdini: The Handcuff King (Hyperion, 2007), a brilliant graphic novel that details Houdini’s famous 1908 jump into the Charles River. This amazing book contains simple black-and-white drawings with swathes of blue to heighten the drama. You learn the secret of Houdini’s escape trick early in the book (it depends on his wife Bess), and when Bess is detained by the throngs of spectators from joining her husband before he jumps into the freezing water, your audience’s breaths will catch in their throats. Harry can still dazzle our eyes, make us all sweat, laugh, or scream with delight even from the printed page. What a showstopper!

About Kathleen Baxter

Kathleen Baxter is the former head of children’s services at the Anoka County Library in suburban Minneapolis and a speaker at school and library conferences all over the USA. She never goes anywhere without a book.

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