Everything Brian Selznick has ever done, especially when he writes and illustrates, fascinates me, yet I still do not understand the allure of Harry Houdini. Despite this and because of it, I love The Houdini Box, Brian Selznick's first book, which is really a long picture book and not a chapter book, but don't tell your kids that.
Despite my lack of interest in Harry Houdini, The Houdini Box is filled with magic, both in the illustrations and the text. And I don't mean wizards and witches kind of magic, or fairies and elves magic, I mean real magic, the magic of childhood. Selznick takes some facts about the man who was Harry Houdini, his given name, the date of his death, the fact that he had once said that on his 100th birthday a box would be opened revealing all of his secrets, and weaves them into a spellbinding story of hopes and dreams and drive and disappointment.
The book begins with a page of information about Houdini, the magician and a wonderful illustration of the man himself. Selznick posits that, in addition to all the adults who were wonderstruck by the magician, children loved him best of all because children want to be able to escape from punishments and make both dinners and parents disappear from time to time. Perhaps that is why juvenile versions of Houdini's biography are published every year.
The Houdini Box goes on to tell the story, with a full page illustration accompanying each page of text, of Victor, who is ten in 1926, and his relentless efforts to perform feats like Houdini. When a chance encounter in a train station puts him face to face with the man, he receives a promise from Houdini that a letter will arrive and he will reveal all of his secrets to Victor. The letter finally arrives, and it is an invitation to visit the master in his home. Victor leaves right away, forgetting entirely that it is Halloween, not even caring about the candy he is missing. When he arrives at Houdini's house, he is met by the beautifully sad face of Beatrice Houdini. It seems that Harry Houdini has died that very day. When Victor explains who he is, she runs upstairs and returns with a box for him.
Victor runs home excitedly, but is dismayed when he sees that the box has the initials E.W. carved on it, rather than H.H. Victor assumes that there must be a mistake and buries the box in a closet and does not think about Houdini again for years. The twist at the end of the book is both bittersweet and surprising, like all good books.
If you don't know Brian Selznick's by name at this point, I am sure you have seen his work and just didn't realize it. He has illustrated numerous book covers, including all of Andrew Clements, as well as The Doll People Trilogy by Ann Martin and Laura Godwin. And, in a first ever feat, his 533 page book, over 200 of which are illustration, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, won the Caldecott Award for excellence in children's book illustration, the first time a chapter and not a picture book has ever done so. His black and white sketches are both realistic and magical, much in the way Chris Van Allsburg's are. They depict a sparse but precise reality and then some, and have a simple way of drawing the reader into the storyand bringing the characters to life instantly.