Chris Grabenstein is the New York Times-bestselling author of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, a middle grade novel about nonstop fun inside a library (and soon-to-be a Nickelodeon movie of the same name). When renowned game inventor Luigi Lemoncello invites a dozen lucky kids to be the first to experience the wonders of his new state-of-the-art library in an overnight lock-in, Kyle Keeley is super excited to be chosen. But when morning comes and the library doors remain locked, the kids discover that Mr. Lemoncello has one last game in store for them. Using only the library’s resources, Kyle and the others must follow book-related clues and solve literary puzzles to find their way out. We were so excited to chat with Chris about his own relationship with books growing up, the value of libraries as a resource for kids, and the coolest library he’s ever visited.
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is a Brightly Book Club for Kids pick. Click here to discover book-inspired activities and tips for discussion, and join the reading fun!
The Mr. Lemoncello’s Library series has been hailed as great for both bookworms and reluctant readers alike. Were you a reader growing up or were you more like the main character Kyle? Did you write the books with reluctant readers in mind?
I was more like Kyle — a reluctant reader, or, as I like to call us, hypercritical readers who only want to read fun, fast-paced, action-packed stories that we enjoy reading. No good-for-you broccoli books. So, yes, I try to write all of my books with the young me in mind. Hopefully, the stories become mental movies that whisk even the most reluctant readers along in their wake.
But I’ve also heard from hundreds of readers — kids and adults — who love the bookworm character Sierra Russell. They either are or were Sierra, with their nose constantly in a book.
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is very much an ode to libraries and all that they offer their communities. Why do you feel that libraries are important resources for kids today?
Libraries are wonderful for so many reasons. They are the epitome of the democratization of knowledge and, as Mr. Lemoncello says, “Knowledge not shared remains unknown.” For kids, the library can become the one place where they are free to pursue an independent study. I remember being young and fascinated by comedians like the Marx Brothers. The library was the place where I could dig into my own personalized pursuit of comedy. In a lot of the schools that I visit, the library is the hub of the school. All classes and subjects are linked to the mothership of knowledge!
The characters take different approaches to Mr. Lemoncello’s challenges, from working alone to helping out others. What were you hoping to convey to readers about the power of teamwork?
Teamwork makes the dream work! I really tried to give every kid on Team Kyle a chance to shine individually, but their talents are magnified because they are working together. I think this is something I really learned working in advertising and film production. A talented team of experts, all of them skilled in their individual craft, can make something much bigger and better than any single artiste attempting to do it all themselves.
You reference many real-life books and authors throughout the story. How did you decide which ones to include? Have you actually read them all?
Full disclosure — I have not read ALL the books. But, one day, I hope I do. Some of the books were chosen simply because their titles gave me the clues I needed. Most, however, were culled from lists of the best books for middle grade readers and Newbery Medal winners.
What was the inspiration behind Mr. Lemoncello and his wacky personality?
Mostly me! When I visit schools, teachers start calling me Mr. Lemoncello instead of Mr. Grabenstein (which, by the way, was my dad’s name — I’m just Chris). I used to do improvisational, free-form comedy and I wanted to give Mr. Lemoncello that kind of wacky dialogue. Also, years ago, I wrote for Jim Henson and the Muppets. He was such a bundle of creative imagination and, when I worked for him, could financially realize anything he dreamt up. There is a lot of Mr. Henson in Mr. Lemoncello.
What’s the best library you’ve ever visited and why?
I love them all — particularly the main branch of the New York Public Library. One of the coolest I’ve visited was the Schaumberg Public Library outside of Chicago where my librarian-friend Amy Alessio, who was a technical advisor on Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, worked. They had a video room on the first floor, a cafe, collaboration stations in the young adult section, and so many cool things that made learning and doing research fun. Mr. Lemoncello would’ve been proud.