The Amazing Adventures of John Smith, Jr. AKA Houdini

The Amazing Adventures of John Smith, Jr. AKA Houdini

1.5 2
by Peter Johnson

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When an author comes to speak to his class in a rundown area of Providence, Houdini decides to make money by writing his own novel.

Rule #8 for Writing a Kid’s Novel: Try to include a few lists in your novel. Kids like lists.

Houdini is way more interesting than the kid the author wrote about.

Rule #6: You have to like your characters or the


When an author comes to speak to his class in a rundown area of Providence, Houdini decides to make money by writing his own novel.

Rule #8 for Writing a Kid’s Novel: Try to include a few lists in your novel. Kids like lists.

Houdini is way more interesting than the kid the author wrote about.

Rule #6: You have to like your characters or the reader won’t care about them. (How can I not like myself?)

Houdini chronicles his life as he and his friends start a leaf-raking business, befriend Old Man Jackson, a Vietnam War veteran with a seriously intimidating dog, and get even with the neighborhood bully, Angel. But it’s hard to find a way to write about his dad losing his job or his brother, Franklin, who is first reported missing in action in Iraq and then still seems to be missing when he comes home.

No matter what, Houdini and his friends rely on one another to figure out how to do the right thing. And Houdini discovers that writing and thinking about his friends and family lets him get to know them in completely new ways.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Johnson (Loserville) delivers a strong contemporary urban novel with cross-gender appeal, thanks to his likable, kind, and clear-eyed narrator, John Smith Jr. Nicknamed Houdini due to his obsession with the magician, the 13-year-old lives in Providence, R.I., in a neighborhood sandwiched between an affluent section and “the one people won’t walk through after midnight unless they have a bodyguard.” Presented in the guise of a novel that Houdini, inspired by a visiting author, is writing, the story traces the events of one autumn when Houdini’s beloved older brother, Franklin, is stationed in Iraq, and Houdini and two friends start a leaf-raking business. Houdini’s daily challenges—facing the local bully, befriending a scary Vietnam vet, fearing for Franklin’s safety—are set against a realistic background of urban decay, broken families, and impending job layoffs, but his humorous edge and the well-paced action create an easy tone. While the overly palatable ending falls short of credibility, Johnson offers solid insights into the varied well-drawn characters, and readers will appreciate Houdini’s realization that “writing makes you think very hard about things.” Ages 8–12. Agent: George Nicholson, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Feb.)
Children's Literature - Justina Engebretson
Inspired by an author's visit to his school, John Smith, known as Houdini to his friends, decides to write a book, following the appropriate list of rules he has found of the do's and do not's for writing children's books. He already has his main characters picked out, which, of course, are himself and his two best friends, Lucky and Jorge. After all, his life is full of all the elements needed for a good novel, including a villain, thanks to Angel, the school bully. The plot of his story follows the life events that are affecting this thirteen-year-olds world, like his brother, Franklin, missing in Iraq and the economic recession that could result in his dad being laid off. As he works to tell his story, John starts to notice small details about the people in his life that he had not noticed before, and as he does, he begins to see life and the people in it in a whole new way. Maybe the author was right when he said that writing will change a person. This middle reader is thought provoking, full of depth, and honesty. It is not an action-packed, fast-paced novel, nor does it contain the violence that appeals to so many middle school boys today. As a result, its reading appeal may be limited to a smaller number of preteen and teenage boys. Reviewer: Justina Engebretson
Kirkus Reviews
A middle-schooler writes a kids' novel; an author writes an engaging, amiable read--and, presto, a tale about a boy nicknamed Houdini turns out magical. When your name is John Smith, you need to have something going for you. What this 13-year-old--alas, no relation to the dude of Pocahontas fame--has is a fascination with the master escape artist. After an author's visit to his classroom, John creates a novel, formed from the very novel kids are reading, and devises a series of lists to guide him. He also relies on adventures with his two best buds; a misunderstood Vietnam vet and his pit bull; and the neighborhood bully. By turns poignant and downright hilarious, Houdini's story/novel is delivered in a voice that's wonderfully authentic. Johnson expertly handles real male middle-school friendships, issues and angst and doesn't avoid some tough contemporary realities: Domestic troubles, the prospect of Dad losing his job and the pain arising from his older brother going missing in Iraq are handled realistically but sensitively. In the end, Houdini realizes that writing has changed him and altered his perspective on people and life. Readers will feel the same way. And just try to get kids not to make their own lists or attempt their own novels. (Fiction. 9-12)
“A bit grittier and more believably boylike than most contemporary first-person narratives, this novel has a lot of heart as well. And while a narrator who makes lists is common enough, Houdini’s are decidedly more amusing than most.”
Providence Journal
“The perfect book for adolescent readers—especially boys—who like humor combined with characters that seem completely real. [A] satisfying novel that will leave readers happy they met Houdini.”
School Library Journal
Gr 5–8—East Providence, RI, is the rundown hometown of John Smith, Jr., 13, nicknamed Houdini by his friends Lucky and Jorge. Hoping to make some money, Houdini undertakes writing an "authentic" kid's book about life in the neighborhood, featuring his buddies; his hardworking parents; and his admired older brother, Franklin, a Marine serving in Iraq. Rounding out the diverse cast of local characters are Angel, a narcoleptic bully; Gregory Gregory, a power-hungry city councilman; and Old Man Jackson, a memorable and complex one-armed Vietnam vet with a pit bull called Da Nang. Houdini and friends start a leaf-raking business, which is halted when Lucky's leg is badly injured in an act of sabotage. When another suspicious act imperils Da Nang's life, Angel, the likely perpetrator, is defended by Lucky, who knows too well the realities of his harsh home life. Franklin is briefly reported MIA, then returns home with an arm wound and damaged spirit. The Smiths' handling of Franklin's military service is portrayed with nuance and dignity. More burdens come when Houdini's father is laid off from his job. Franklin then organizes his father, Houdini, and others from the neighborhood to fix Old Man Jackson's shabby house, which Councilman Gregory had been maneuvering to tear down. Humorous Top-10 lists on various topics are interspersed within the well-paced plot, and ample coverage, including a reading list, is given to the life and work of the great Harry Houdini, as a sense of hope and possibility renews this hard-luck community. Pair this fine upbeat novel with Barbara Kerley's Greetings from Planet Earth (Scholastic, 2007).—Susan W. Hunter, Riverside Middle School, Springfield, VT

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.78(w) x 8.52(h) x 0.70(d)
950L (what's this?)
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

Meet the Author

Peter Johnson is the critically acclaimed author of several collections of poetry, short stories, and novels, including Miracles & Mortifications, winner of the James Laughlin Award, Eduardo & “I,” Pretty Happy!, Love Poems for the Millennium, Rants and Raves: Selected and New Prose Poems, I’m a Man, and two young adult novels: Loserville and What Happened, a Paterson Prize winner that ALA Booklist called the “most gorgeously written YA of 2007.” Johnson is the recipient of two creative writing awards from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches creative writing and children’s literature at Providence College in Rhode Island, where he lives with his wife, Genevieve, and two sons, Kurt and Lucas.

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The Amazing Adventures of John Smith, Jr. AKA Houdini 1.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had to read this book for school and it was so boring and dry
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ok book