Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for the 21st century—at once a flashlight-under-the-covers adventure and a literary delight.
Random House Books for Young Readers
Shelf Unbound: You started out as an improv comedian. Have any rules of improv influenced your fiction writing?
Chris Grabenstein: Yes, indeed! I use the basic improv principle of saying “Yes, and…” every day when I write. When you’re improvising a scene with a partner, the only real rule is to not deny what your partner creates and then build on it. For instance, if you say, “Hands up, I have a gun!” and I say, “No, that’s your finger” our scene dies. But, if I say, “Hey, isn’t that the gun the Martians left last time they landed in our trailer park?” we’re off and running. In my author visits to schools, I try to teach kids how to use this technique so they never have writer’s block. It’s a great way to let your subconscious come out and play. Of course, once you improvise that scene on paper, you go back and tighten it up and make it better. (The second lesson of my school visits is that the secret to writing is rewriting.) But, utilizing the “Yes, and…” technique opens you up to all sorts of opportunities your rational brain may never find.
Shelf Unbound: You’ve written books for kids as well as a number of mysteries and thrillers for adults. What does writing for middle readers allow you to do or explore that writing for adults does not?
Grabenstein: I find that I get to use more of my imagination when I’m writing for Middle Grades readers. That said, I borrow the pacing, cliffhangers, and twists of my adult mysteries and thrillers to keep kids burning through the pages. I suspect this is why my books have done so well with reluctant readers. The nicest e-mails I receive are from parents who tell me that their son or daughter wasn’t a reader until they picked up one of my books and couldn’t put it down. Also, at book signings, kids sometimes hug your book while they wait on line for you to sign it. Very few adults are book huggers.
Shelf Unbound: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is a celebration of literature and libraries and even the Dewey Decimal System. Did you frequent the library as a kid, and what were some of your favorite books that you discovered there?
Grabenstein: Unfortunately, in my own life, the opposite is true. After being born in Buffalo, NY my family moved to a part of Tennessee where, at the time, libraries and books and even education weren’t celebrated very much. I don’t think our small town even had a public library. At school, our library wasn’t considered an important part of the learning experience. Visiting schools and public libraries for the past five years, I have been extremely impressed by the libraries and librarians that are out there helping young minds find books to devour. Often, the favorite part of my school visit day is early in the morning, drinking coffee with the librarians, listening to them interacting with the eager kids who come through the door at 8 a.m. hungry for a new book to read. “Oh, if you liked X, you’ll love Z,” they say. And I ask myself, where were these libraries and librarians when I was a kid?