Chris Grabenstein has had a prodigious output in the last several years, writing over twenty books and winning two Anthony and three Agatha Awards. His latest book, Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, finds its young protagonists drawn into a complex game where they must decipher clues to discover the secret exit from their town’s brand new library, which just happens to have been designed by an eccentric board game inventor. Mr. Lemoncello has drawn praise for its witty tone and fast pace, and has already drawn comparisons to such Young Adult stalwarts as The Westing Game and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Mr. Grabenstein spoke with Brendan Dowling via e-mail on August 10, 2013.
Public Libraries: You’ve began your career performing improvisational comedy in Greenwich Village. How has improvisation influenced your writing style?
Chris Grabenstein: Yes! I spent five years doing improvisational comedy in New York City. A guy named Bruce Willis was in our troupe. Robin Williams used to drop by to perform with us whenever he was in the city shooting a movie. In improv, there is only one rule: “Yes…and.” To take what you are given and add to it. I use this technique every day when I sit down to write. I know who my characters are, what they want, and where they are. And then I say “Yes, and…” to see what happens.
PL: You’ve been holding library visits via Skype since the book has been published. What do you like about visiting libraries and interacting with your readers?
CG: Everything! Of course it’s great to see how excited they are about every detail in a book. They also treat authors like rock stars. Also, it was visiting libraries that inspired me to write Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library. Growing up, I did not have access to a great library or super librarians. Now that I visit libraries and schools 30-40 days a year, I have met all sorts of incredible librarians who know the perfect book to recommend to kids to keep them excited about reading. Where were they when I was twelve? I guess my new book is a thank you note for the terrific job these folks are doing.
PL: There’s a secret puzzle hidden within the text, and the reader can decode it and send the solution to you. What has it been like communicating with readers who have figured out the puzzle?
CG: I have been impressed by some of the answers. Somebody thought the die on the cover was the clue. The numbers on it are 1-2-3, so they went to page 123. Somebody else computed Mr. Lemoncello’s exact birth date. I have been giving out a bonus hint to readers who try and get it wrong and, ta-dah, now I’ll give it out here: In the book, right before Kyle’s extreme challenge, Mr. Lemoncello says, “Forget the Industrial Revolution, my first idea might be your best solution.” Think about that as you flip through all the chapters one more time.
PL: Your first books were for adults. What are the challenges writing for a Young Adult audience? What do you like about writing for this age group?
CG: I try to make all my books fast-paced and fun. I think, when writing for a younger audience, you have to be faster and even more fun. You also can not write down to this group. I have met some amazingly sophisticated eight-year-old readers. I love writing for this age group as I get to use more of my imagination…and my silly side. I sometimes think I will be twelve (in my head) forever.
PL: You’ve designed a library scavenger hunt similar to the one in the book with Children’s Services librarians from the Carroll County Public Library in Finksburg, Maryland. What’s involved with the scavenger hunt? Have you heard back from any libraries that have already held it?
CG: Well, the folks in Finksburg who helped me design the game held an ESCAPE game just a couple weeks ago. I was able to wish everybody good luck via Skype before the game got underway. They had, I think, 50+ kids tearing around the stacks, having fun while simultaneously learning about the Dewey Decimal system. It was a great success. I have heard from several libraries and schools that plan on hosting a similar event in the Fall. Everything you need to put together your own library game is on this page of my web site.
And here is the information you need to access the files:
(We wanted to put up a small firewall to stop the smartest kid in the library from simply googling my web site during the game and finding all the answers!)
PL: What are you working on next? Will there be a Mr. Lemoncello sequel?
CG: Right now, I am working on a new book for Random House called The Island of Dr. Libris. It’s about a boy who discovers that an island in the middle of the lake where he’s spending the summer is the testing grounds of the mysterious Dr. Libris, who may have invented a way to make the characters in books come alive. It is a “companion piece” to Mr. Lemoncello. We are also talking about maybe doing a sequel to Mr. Lemoncello.
I also co-authored some more books with James Patterson: Treasure Hunters, which will come out in September, and I Even Funnier, scheduled for early December.