Review: Harry and the High Wire

Harry and the High Wire: Houdini's First Amazing Act

by Julie Carpenter, illustrated by Laura Catalán

Green Bean Books, 2024

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Shanna Silva

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Picture book biography Harry and The High Wire takes place during Houdini’s childhood, when he became enthralled with a tightrope walking act at the circus. For an ordinary boy, this taste of the extraordinary sparked his first interest in the performative arts. Harry became obsessed with mastering the tightrope walk, and with the encouragement of his supportive mother, he began practicing. The message from Pirkei Avot that “according to the effort is the reward,” shows the value of putting time into following a passion and developing a craft. Central to Harry’s eventual success were the failures along the way, when perseverance and self-belief propelled him to continue.

The fully fold-out book is cleverly laid out so that the art continues on the pages that eventually lay out to 4 meters wide (that’s 157.48 inches to us Americans). The art flows to these wider spreads with a lamp wire becoming a clothesline, flowing into a tree and then a tightrope. The engaging drawings feature different points of view, including an aerial shot looking down at Harry on the high-wire. Great attention to detail gives the art a welcoming, familiar feel. One side of the fold-out is the story of Harry learning to walk the high wire; the other side offers a peek into some of his amazing tricks, a timeline, and a biography.

Harry and the High Wire has literary merit and positive, authentic Jewish content. Houdini’s family is celebrating Shabbat in the story’s opening. The males, including Houdini’s rabbi father, all wear kippot. Candlesticks, challah, a kiddush cup and matzo ball soup complete the scene. Another spread takes place at the family’s synagogue. Houdini’s Judaism is not central to the plot, but rather part of a community life rich with tradition and meaning. This book meets the criteria for the Sydney Taylor Book Award.

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Reviewer Shanna Silva is an award-winning author and Broadway producer. She has written three children’s picture books: A Dog’s Guide to Being Human, Hannah’s Hanukkah Hiccups and Passover Scavenger Hunt. Shanna is also the author of over 50 hi/lo books for emerging readers. Her work has been featured in Kveller, Bella Magazine, Twins Magazine, Multiples Illuminated I and II, and Chicken Soup for the Soul. Shanna lives in New York with her family and a meshuggenah sheepadoodle.