|Plan Your Visit|
|Research and Collections|
|History in the Making|
Beginning February 16, 2013
Tuesday through Sunday
11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Closed Monday & Holidays
Closed: Easter, Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve Day, Christmas Day, New Years Eve Day, New Years Day
(Beginning February 16, 2013)
Children (5-17) $3.50
Seniors (65+) and Students w/ID $5.50
Under 5 Free
(2 adults & their minor children)
By Benjamin Filene, Curator
Taken from the Mystifier, a publication of the Houdini Historical Center
Volume 6, Number 3 Third Quarter, 1996
I count 14 biographies of Houdini for young readers, a number that would make many former presidents green with envy. The sheer quantity of these volumes, however, cannot compensate for their serious flaws. With only a few exceptions, these works are hopelessly sensationalized. They distort the historical record and, worse, obscure Houdini’s true legacy.
Books, we all know, can powerfully influence young readers. Harry Houdini himself found his calling (and his stage name) by reading Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin’s memoirs as a teenager. The Houdini Historical Center’s own Sidney Radner recounts how, at nine years old, he stayed up late into the night reading the 1928 Houdini biography written by Harold Kellock and Bess Houdini. At the end, he had tired eyes and a new hero.
Since one of the functions of children’s literature is to encourage young people to dream, Harry Houdini, the master of the impossible, is a natural subject. In their eagerness to spark young readers’ imaginations, though, Houdini’s biographers have created tales that stretch the limits of credibility and, ironically, may not inspire children as effectively as would more restrained and accurate narratives.
Almost all the biographies stray from historical fact into the territory of legend and, often outright fiction. Lee Kendall’s Houdini: Master of Escape (1960) outlandishly shows Houdini throwing himself in front of a moving train to ensure that his trunks get loaded on board (p.110). David Warren (The Great Escaper, 1979) concocts a scene in which Harry and Bess, cold and hungry, cook potatoes on a fire made from an old packing case; as he breaks apart the box, Houdini is struck with an idea. Why not escape from a packing case in his act? John Norwood Fago (Houdini, 1979) manufactures stiff dialogue for the Houdinis’ brief courtship.
Bess: “You really can make magic!”
Harry: “Well, then, let’s do a disappearing act and get married!” (p. 15)
When discussing Houdini’s childhood, the majority of the books draw directly on myths that Houdini himself propagated in his press releases and that his wife Bess furthered in her biography with Kellock. The accounts portray Houdini perfecting his first trick at age nine – hanging from his knees while picking up needles with his eyelids. They describe him honing his talents one night by unlocking every store on Appleton’s main street. They show poor Mrs. Weiss locking fresh-baked pies in her cupboard, only to find them half-eaten a moment later. While such tales are interesting for what they show about how Houdini publicized himself, they should not be the basis for historical biography. Moreover, these stories unnecessarily dull the effects of the truly astounding feats that Houdini accomplished in his career. If a man grows up to vanish elephants, is it really necessary to depict him picking up pins with his eyelids as a boy? Surely the historical “reality” (if that term may be applied to illusions!) is just as dynamic as the apocryphal stories.
Even as the biographers show a disregard for the facts of Houdini’s life, they display a surprising determination to tell all regarding Houdini’s great escapes. Robert Kraske (Harry Houdini: Master of Magic, 1973) reveals how Houdini escaped from a locked safe and from handcuffs. Florence White (Escape! The Life of Harry Houdini, 1979) details how he vanished an elephant and walked through a brick wall. E.A. Haas (Houdini’s Last Trick: The Amazing True Story of the World’s Greatest Magician, 1995) gives away the Metamorphosis effect and several jail-escape techniques. Many of the authors’ explanations conflict, but their cumulative effect is stunning. Obviously, these revelations are designed to appeal to young people’s curiosity. They reflect, however, a misunderstanding of what sustains young people’s imaginations. As magicians know, audiences take more delight in speculating about how the “impossible” was done than in actually learning the answer. Young people’s interest in magic can be piqued by teaching them to perform relatively simple tricks, but popular fascination with Houdini depends on shielding non-magicians from explanations of this greatest mysteries.
For all the inadequacies in most of the juvenile literature, two standout books suggest the rich possibilities Houdini’s life offers for young readers. Adam Woog’s The Importance of Harry Houdini (1995) presents a far more balanced and nuanced depiction of Houdini’s life that the other authors. Targeted for ages 10-13, Woog steers away from what he calls “the plainly fanciful tales” told by previous biographers (p.99). Where historical evidence is lacking, he refrains from inventing information to fill in the gaps. Where conflicting stories exist (for example, regarding how Bess and Harry met), he does not shy away from presenting multiple versions and identifying the contradictions (p.21).
Woog does choose to reveal several of Houdini’s illusions (walking through a brick wall, escaping from a Siberian transport vehicle, and freeing himself from a bank vault), but his focus is less on how Houdini performed his stunts than on why they captured the public’s imagination. He shifts attention to Houdini’s genius for self-promotion and the societal needs the escape artist fulfilled and continues to fulfill today. “It is not because of Houdini’ sheer skill that he remains famous,” Woog writes (p.99). “He has become part of the world’s collective dreams” (pp.9-10). The Importance of Harry Houdini enriches young readers’ understanding of Houdini as an historical figure and, along the way, offers an instructive example of how to interpret and present historical evidence responsibly.
Some young readers, though, will not have the interest or reading ability to follow Woog’s argument through 100 pages. They are looking for a flight or fancy, not a history lesson, no matter how engagingly presented. Most of the other juvenile Houdini books meet this need by filling their “histories” with fictional tales. But Brian Selznick offers an alternative solution – using history as the launching point for openly fictional imaginations. In The Houdini Box (1991), Selznick places Houdini in the center of a tale about the liberating power of dreaming. Expressively illustrated, it tells of a 10-year-old boy, Victor, who can think of nothing but Houdini. Then, through an amazing chance encounter, he meets the magician. Shortly after Houdini’s death, Bess gives Victor a mysterious box, one that may contain the magician’s secrets.
Selznick does not reveal the secrets, though, and they can hardly be missed. The story is about the search and the dream, not the mundane details of how Houdini built illusions. Similarly, although The Houdini Box is rooted in specific historical realities, it is not bound by them. Selznick does incorporate biographical details about Houdini, and, in an afterword, carefully distinguishes which elements of the story were factual and which he invented. As such, the gook, like Woog’s, is a model for how to responsibly handle historical evidence. Since he is writing fiction, though, Selznick is able to make a more idiosyncratic exploration of Houdini’s importance. Freed from the constraints of history, Selznick gives perhaps the most vivid and convincing explanation of Houdini’s enduring popularity that appears in children’s literature:
Everyone was wonderstruck by Houdini, but children were especially delighted. Children want to be able to escape from their rooms when they are sent there for being bad. They want to make their dinners disappear and their parents vanish. They want to pull candy from their pockets without putting any in, turn their sisters into puppies and their brothers into frogs (although some children want to turn their puppies and frogs into sisters and brothers). Children like Houdini because he could do the unexplainable things that they wanted to do. Houdini was a magician. Magicians can do anything (p.1).
Whether fiction or nonfiction, children’s books about Houdini should be able to tap into young people’s fantasies. In their efforts to encourage lofty dreams, though, authors must take care to avoid beclouding young people’s understanding of history. Woog and Selznick show that it is possible to write about Houdini for young people in ways that strike the imagination without jettisoning historical truth.
Alden, Laura. Houdini. Chicago: Children’s Press, 1989.
Borlund, Kathryn Kilby and Helen Ross Speicher. Harry Houdini: Young Magician. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1991 .
Edwards, Anne. The Great Houdini. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977.
Ernst, John. Escape King: The Story of Harry Houdini. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975.
Norwood Fago, John. Houdini. West Haven, CT: Pendulum Press, 1979.
Haas, E.A. Houdini’s Last Trick: The Amazing True Story of the World’s Greatest Magician. New York: Random House, 1995.
Howard, Elizabeth. Mystery of the Magician [fiction]. New York: Random House, 1987.
Kellock, Harold. Houdini: His Life-Story. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company Books, 1928.
Kendall, Lee. Houdini: Master of Escape. Philadelphia: Macrae Smith Company, 1960.
Kraske, Robert. Harry Houdini: Master of Magic. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1973.
Levy, Elizabeth. Running Out of Magic with Houdini [fiction]. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1981.
Sabin, Louis. The Great Houdini: Daring Escape Artist. Mahwah, NJ: Troll Associates, 1990.
Cogger, Kathy. Harry Houdini, An Appleton Original. Appleton, WI: Patriot Press 1991 .
Selznick, Brian. The Houdini Box [fiction]. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.
Warren, David. The Great Escaper. Milwaukee, WI: Macdonald Raintree, 1979.
Wayne, Bennett, ed. The Super Showmen. Champaign, IL: Garrard Publishing Co., 1974.
White, Florence Meiman. Escape! The Life of Harry Houdini. New York: Julian Messner, 1979.
Woog, Adam. The Importance of Harry Houdini. San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc., 1995.