Houdini’s Tricks and How He Might Have Learnt Them
The tricks. Everybody knows them. Escaping from nailed-shut crates tossed into rivers; leaping off bridges; wriggling from straitjackets while upside down. These stunts gripped the world a hundred years ago; and the grip has yet to loosen its hold. But how did Houdini invent these tricks? What gave him the idea for them? What made him believe he could carry them out?
Often, stories begin with questions—and these were mine. Trying to solve them, I found myself wondering what this famous man’s childhood might have been like. Perhaps something extraordinary had happened to him which might explain his death-defying feats in later life? I played with this, and began to construct an alternative history of this famous figure; one in which he became separated from his family as a boy, and ended up alone on the streets of Manhattan. I added two friends and then decided to sweep those characters up in a series of mysteries—mysteries which Harry would investigate with the help of his emerging magician’s skills. And, as the world took shape, I began to think I might have answered those very first questions of mine.
Because at the center of each mystery, there would be a ruthless criminal, of course. And each of those criminals, I decided, would end up seeking to ensnare Harry in some kind of deadly and devious trap. It might involve straitjackets, alligators, terrifying heights—whatever it was, it would be terrifying, and young Harry would have to improvise, with his wits and muscles, a desperately ingenious escape. Thrilling finales to my stories—but something more than that too. These horrendous ordeals, I realized, could offer the explanation to my questions about how Harry Houdini might have “invented” his nerve-jangling tricks later in life. Or rather, they would suggest that he hadn’t invented them at all; that they were in fact re-enactments of the terrifying predicaments he had encountered as a boy.
So each story became an “unauthorized biography” of one of Houdini’s famous tricks—the story behind how he devised the water-cell escape, or the straitjacket escape, or the leap from Princeton Bridge. I found myself studying each of the tricks in turn: and ideas for possible stories whirred in my mind. All fiction of course—but suggesting an intriguing insight into this legendary man.
A rather frightening insight too. Because, according to my stories, it would seem that the death-defying tricks the real Houdini performed were actually just the half of it. They were, it turns out, just performances, just theatrical re-plays—it was when he was a boy, it turned out, that he did those escapes FOR REAL.
YOUNG HOUDINI: THE MAGICIAN’S FIRE is published in the US by Sourcebooks, October 7th, 2014, and by OUP in the UK and rest of world 5th February 2015
About the Author
Simon Nicholson writes for Nick Jr. including such shows as Tickety Tock, Bob the Builder, and Zack and Quack, as well as for BBC children’s programming. He lives in London. Visit him online at simonbnicholson.com.
By Simon Nicholson
Young Harry Houdini spends his days chaining himself to train tracks and teetering on wires high above the city with his two best friends, Arthur and Billie. But when Harry’s friend and magical mentor, Herbie, disappears, the three friends band together, determined to rescue the beloved magician.
With nothing more than a mysterious puff of purple smoke, an ominous threat, and a menacing Bulgarian for evidence, Harry, Arthur, and Billie embark on a dangerously thrilling investigation that pushes their skill, and friendship, to the limits. But can Harry find Herbie before it’s too late?
Ages 10-13 | Publisher: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky | Oct. 7, 2014 | ISBN-13: 978-1492603320
If you’re fascinated by Simon Nicholson’s Young Houdini book and would like to discover more books on magic, check out The Children’s Book Review’s articles tagged with Books of Magic.
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