Interview with Julie Carpenter, author of HARRY AND THE HIGHWIRE: HOUDINI’S FIRST AMAZING ACT

Julie Carpenter’s picture book HARRY AND THE HIGHWIRE: HOUDINI’S FIRST AMAZING ACT (Green Bean Books, 2024), beautifully illustrated by Laura Catalán, is a delightful story about young Harry Houdini, before he was known as a famous escape artist. The book explores Harry’s childhood and his passion for tightrope walking. Young readers will be inspired by Harry’s determination to succeed. HARRY AND THE HIGHWIRE offers a fascinating peek into Harry Houdini’s early years and family life. I look forward to learning more about this interesting story. Welcome, Julie!

Harry Houdini is a well-known escape artist, but your story is about his childhood passion, tightrope walking. How did you learn about Harry’s childhood and what inspired you to write about it?

Most of my knowledge has come from having my nose buried in various Houdini biographies! But in a way the book started in reverse.  I was approached to write it by the publisher of Green Bean Books who already knew he wanted to produce a really fun, inventive book that folded out. I loved the idea – and we did chew over a few other famous names for the central character but Houdini seemed like a great choice because, while he is world-renowned as an escapologist, few people are aware that he ever learned tightrope walking. Or that he did it when he was just seven years old. 

The big challenge for me was writing around the concept – knowing a tightrope would be running all the way through on each page – but I also didn’t want the book to be about tightrope walking as such but more about achieving your dreams and what it takes to do that. One of the things that struck me most about Houdini from both his biographies and his own writing was just how obsessively dedicated he was to his craft and how much effort he was prepared to put into pulling off his miraculous acts. I wanted to write a story that imbued that spirit into one moment of his childhood where he saw what he was capable of and what he might become. 

Julie Carpenter

Harry’s Jewish family plays a big role in the story. Do you think their support was important to his success? How significant was Harry’s Jewish identity throughout his life? 

I think the support of Houdini’s mother, Cecilia, was paramount. Houdini adored her, called her “the guiding beacon of my life” and she even sewed the outfit he wore for his first ever circus act at the age of nine. But I think a lot of other factors came into play too. When my story is set, Houdini’s father, Mayer Samuel Weiss, was a rabbi and the family had emigrated from Hungary to Appleton, Wisconsin, where they were happy and settled. But Houdini’s father lost his job a few years later and the family were plunged into poverty, with all the children put to work in menial jobs. Escaping poverty is a pretty big spur. Then you add in Houdini’s own phenomenal self-drive and dedication and you’re left with quite a potent mix. 

As to how significant his Jewish identity was, I would say very. Houdini married outside his faith (to a dancer called Bess) but he never forgot his roots. He would often adhere to Jewish tradition, for instance reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer nightly after his mother died in 1913. He would also often give to Jewish charities and, during the First World War, he established the Rabbi’s Sons Theatrical Benevolent Association. 

And his favourite food? According to his niece, it was Chicken Paprika, a nod to both his Jewish and Hungarian background. 

In your research process for this story were there any interesting or fun anecdotes that didn’t make it into your final draft?

Yes! My main story focuses on the young Harry and is a fictional tale, weaved around what we know. But, because of its concertina style, the book has two sides. On the reverse side, I’ve tried to give a taste of the “real” Houdini, with a biography, a timeline of his life and a run down of some of his most famous tricks. It would of course be impossible to cram everything into those 40 pages – but there was one story about his childhood I’d have liked to have squeezed in. At the age of 12, he ran away from home for a year, hoping to make his fortune and help the family. He intended to go to Galveston, Texas – only he got on the wrong freight train and ended up in Kansas City, Missouri. After travelling around, a kindly couple, the Flitcrofts, found him sleeping rough on the streets and took him in. Years later, when he was a worldwide sensation, Houdini found the couple and brought them gifts, including a mink coat, to say thank you. He kept in touch with them for the rest of his life. I rather liked that! 

What were your thoughts when you first saw the illustrations by Laura Catalán?

I was super excited to see Laura’s first sketches of the young Harry. They’re not a caricature but there are a few stylistic nods towards the well-known image of the older Houdini – especially when it comes to his curly hair and parting – which are perfect. Before Laura was attached to the project I think I’d imagined a more simple style with the tightrope completely foregrounded but I absolutely love the amount of detail and humour Laura has put into the pictures. You see extra touches every time you look. I was asked to add illustration notes when I wrote the book and I especially wanted to have Harry’s pet chicken, Banjoe, featured in some way in every illustration. I only mention her once at the end of the narrative but I wanted Banjoe to have her own pictorial story-within-a-story as she tries to mimic Harry and be the “hen Houdini”. I know my children love having something to spot on every page – and I think Laura has done that wonderfully. She’s so talented. 

What do you hope young readers take away from HARRY AND THE HIGHWIRE?

I really wanted this story to have a wide appeal. Yes, it’s about Harry Houdini but, in the main story, Harry could be any child who has a dream or ambition. I wanted to tap into children’s potential and say, if there’s something you want to do, you really could achieve it – but, you know what, you might have to work at it. I know my own children can get disheartened if something doesn’t come easily to them so I guess I wanted to say – have confidence in yourself and don’t give up! And of course I just hope children will have fun reading the story, opening the whole book up, trying to put it back together, and hopefully learning about the real Houdini from the book’s flip side as well. 

Harry and the Highwire is published by Green Bean Books in March 2024.

Thank you, Julie!

Julie Carpenter is a UK-based author, editor and journalist. Currently writing and editing children’s books, she has a background in national newspapers spanning two decades, including spending many years as a feature writer and theatre critic at the Daily Express. She studied English Literature at Oxford University and lives in London with her family. Harry and the Highwire is her first children’s book. Find out more at

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