Age range: 11 – 13
Interest range: 8 and up
Reading level: 7.3
Genre: Adventure, Biography
Immigrant Life, Performing, Magic
Fleischman looks at Houdini’s life through his own eyes, as a fellow magician. Guarding the secrets, yet entertaining readers, he tells the rags-to-rags story of a poor Jewish boy named Ehrich Weiss, who longed to be like his idol, French magician Robert-Houdin. Not satisfied to perform the usual magicians’ fare, he began perfecting tricks involving illusion, particularly escaping from restraints such as trunks, handcuffs, and straightjackets. While performing in small medicine shows and vaudeville theater, Ehrich, now Harry Houdini, met his wife and stage partner, Bess. Houdini learned stunt flying and how to make elephants disappear but gained the most attention from his public stunts, such as defying Scotland Yard to keep him locked up, or wrapping himself in chains and jumping into a river. Years later, he was about to perform his Chinese Water Torture trick when his appendix ruptured and he died in a local hospital.
Fleischman, a Newbery Medalist for The Whipping Boy, writes an entertaining biography of a man who is still a household name nearly 100 years after his death. Fleischman tells it like it was, complete with the manufactured tales Houdini told the public as he crafted the story of his life. Houdini was an unabashed publicity hound who was strong, clever and hard-working. Fleischman presents the story in almost a carnival barker way, shouting out the truths and untruths so that we cannot look away. We do want to see what is behind the curtain. Many of Houdini’s secrets are safe with Fleischman, as one magician will not reveal another magician’s secrets. Fleischman’s tone is lively and he develops a relationship with readers by revealing just enough truth behind Houdini’s razzle-dazzle to keep the legend alive. Numerous black-and-white photographs chronicle the magician’s life, and Fleischman’s postscript shares his own relationship with Madame Houdini, whom he visited at length when he was a young man. A very interesting and enthralling book and not just for budding magicians.
Although the reading level in firmly middle school level, the images, photographs and large format of the book make it accessible to a younger audience.
Harry Houdini was an immigrant from Hungary, the son of a Rabbi, who left his family home at the age of 12 to begin making his way in the world. He was an autodidact, always reading and learning with his own books. He married his wife after knowing her two weeks. She was 18 and he was 20. Houdini kept working on his performances, changing what he did and how he promoted them, and eventually found that what was most thrilling to audiences was his ability to escape.
Greenwillow Books, 2006. 224p.