Book Review: Houdini and the Five-Cent Circus


Houdini and the Five-Cent Circus

Written by Keith Gray

112 pages

Published by Barrington Stoke

Publication date: 15th June 2018

Summary (from Goodreads):

The year is 1885 and Erik Weiss, a penniless immigrant, has found himself in trouble again. His uncanny talent for picking locks and his gleeful showboating to match it, have earned him very few friends and a bad reputation. But this is just the beginning of his story and Erik is destined for a far more magical future. Watch as he transforms before your very eyes into the greatest showman the world has ever seen…

Particularly suitable for struggling, reluctant or dyslexic readers aged 8+


‘What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.’ – Harry Houdini


Erik had vanished.

“Where is he?” Jack asked. His teeth chattered louder than a  shook-up bag of marbles. Maybe because he was freezing cold, or maybe because he was nervous. Probably both.

“Can you see him?” Jack continued. “He can’t have just disappeared.”

“Maybe he’s got himself caught already, ” I said.

We were both worried. It was close to midnight. We were hunkered in the shadows of a big oak tree on the corner of College Avenue and Superior Street. We leaned around the tree trunk to peer along College Avenue, hoping to spot Erik. But there was no one to be seen.

“You’re the one who dared Erik to do this,” ” I said to Jack. “It’s your fault if he’s got caught.”

“How was I to know he’d really do it?” Jack snapped back.

“You shouldn’t dare Erik to do anything,” I said. “Not ever.”

I am consistently amazed by the books in this series from Barrington Stoke – the authors manage to cram so much story into so few pages! This story follows Erik Weiss, the son of a rabbi, who has a fascination with locks and eventually becomes known to the masses as Harry Houdini. It is inspired by true events from Houdini’s childhood and had me hooked from the first page!

The story is narrated by Mattie, a fourteen year old girl who is concerned that behaving like a lady might make living her life more difficult. Her two best friends are Jack and Erik. Jack is an aspiring acrobat and magician and he runs his own circus, charging 5 cents per performance. Erik is a child of Hungarian immigrants who often clashes with his father over their disparate ideas for Erik’s future.

Our story starts with Mattie and Jack shivering behind a tree in their town as they wait for Erik to complete the challenge of unlocking every shop in town. Understandably this stunt is less popular with the shopkeepers who are worried about thieves!

This is a fascinating origin story about Harry Houdini’s early years and his journey to becoming a household name. I can imagine it making anyone want to find out a bit more about him – here are my Top Three facts after reading a bit more of the background.

  • Houdini was quite short (around 5’5″) and was said to be slightly bow-legged – this gave him a bit more room to escape after being tied or chained up!
  • He started the first magic company in America and it is still in existence today!
  • Before he died, Houdini is said to have agreed on a code word to communicate with his wife, if life after death were possible. Some organizations continue to hold an annual seance in order to attempt making contact with him.

Erik’s skills as a locksmith intrigue some and cause problems with others, including a menacing cowboy who seems to have his eye on Erik for something nefarious. I was completely drawn into this story and had to keep reading to see if Erik had finally gotten himself into a trap he couldn’t escape from…

This is a quick-paced, exciting read that is sure to be a hit with readers aged 7+, reluctant or not.

Be aware, you might end up with your very own Five-Cent Circus or wannabe escape artists, inspired by this book!

Erik dropped the chains and padlock from his body and waved his unbound hands in the air. The crowd went wild with cheers. I looked at Erik and knew that he would become very familiar with that sound.

What I liked: I loved finding out about Houdini when he was just a boy called Erik, I liked the friendship between the three main characters, I liked the fact that Houdini is an immigrant who succeeded through sheer determination and hard work. I loved just how much story and feeling was packed into this short book and, of course, the dyslexia-friendly font is great on the eyes. I can see this book being really popular with the age group I teach (age 7-8) because it isn’t intimidating, yet isn’t childish  – it is the perfect mix of interest and accessibility.

Even better if: I can’t think of anything! Except, I want to find out more about Houdini now so will need to go and do some research.

How you could use it in your classroom: As I mentioned above, this would be a great book from Year 2 upwards, and could especially be recommended to older readers who want something that is high-interest but not difficult. I love the dyslexia-friendly font and think that this is so important. Even children without a specific diagnosis can benefit form this.

(Thank you to Barrington Stoke for my review copy)


Are you interested? Check out the entire first chapter for free on the Barrington Stoke website (plus lots of previews of their other wonderful books!)

Also, don’t miss my interview with the Author here on the blog tomorrow!

While you’re here, why not check out my reviews of The Company of Eight, Flower Moon, Dino Wars or Amelia Fang and the Barbaric Ball?

Find me on Twitter , Goodreads or Instagram

Thanks for reading!

7 Comments Add yours

  1. What a fantastic sounding read!!! A little magic, a little history. A great mix!!

    Liked by 1 person

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