Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein

Mar 24, 2016

You might recall that one of my goals this year is to read at least six books along with Aaron. Because of that, I've been even more interested than usual in trending children's books. So when Janssen chose this book for her Tell Me What to Read winter round and Erica mentioned it on two different book lists (middle grade mysteries and Roald Dahl readalikes), all within the space of  two weeks of each other, it seemed like fate was flashing an arrow and saying, "This might be a good choice."

Kyle Keely loves games. But books? Not so much. So did he submit an essay for the "Why I'm Excited for the New Public Library" contest? Um, no. The prize is a special library lock-in on Friday night, and, sorry, but being locked in a library just isn't that enticing.

But then he finds out that there will probably be games at the lock-in (not to mention movies and food), and he decides to submit an essay at the last possible second. Literally. He only has time to write, "Balloons. There might be balloons."

He's already a little embarrassed about his less than stellar attempt, but it turns to downright mortification when he realizes that Mr. Luigi Lemoncello (the Luigi Lemoncello, world famous game creator) will be one of the judges because, get this, he is the sole financial donor who gave five hundred million dollars to build the library.

The old Alexandria public library was torn down twelve years ago. That means that all the kids who are twelve have lived their whole lives without easy access to a library. The essay contest will select twelve twelve-year-olds to be the very first library patrons. Kyle is twelve, but that's the only thing he has going for him. He thinks.

However, in a sudden twist of events, Kyle is awarded the final spot, proof that, in Mr. Lemoncello's own words, "the game is never over till it's over."

The $500 gift card, glitzy reception, and the Electronic Learning Center (basically a high-tech game room inside the library) are even better than Kyle could have imagined. But the real fun (and the actual point of the contest) happens the next morning when the kids all wake up to find they are still locked in the library and have to solve complex puzzles and play life-size games in order to find the alternate exit . . . and the prize for getting out is far bigger and grander than just a gift card.

Being locked inside a library for twenty-four hours is basically my idea of heaven, so this book should have fulfilled all my wildest dreams, but sadly, it did not. A windowless space filled with holographic images, touch-screen computers, and canned applause just did not wow me in the slightest, but, given the number of times these things were mentioned, I think they were supposed to. For example, at one point, the kids are trying to figure out the square root of 48,629.20271209 (long story . . . ), and Miguel says, "Hang on. There's a calculator app in this desktop computer." Not only is it aggravating to see books being outshone by nothing more than a calculator app, it also just seems like all the "cutting edge technology" will date this book really quickly and not in a charming way.

Personally, I related the most to Sierra Russell, one of the contestants, who hardly gave a second glance to all the fancy screens before she picked up a book, found a quiet corner, and began to read. I guess I should at least be happy that the library had actual paper books in it instead of just e-readers. That's something. (And, as long as I'm being generous, the Rotunda Reading Room, with its floor to third-floor ceiling bookshelves, did sound pretty spectacular.)

Then there was Mr. Lemoncello himself, a quirky, eccentric man who wore squeaky banana shoes, loved riddles, and inserted book titles into all of his conversations ("'You are correct!'" shouted Mr. Lemoncello. 'There's no dead end in Norvelt, not today!'"). He was a Willy Wonka wannabe if ever there was one, but it was just a little too obvious. (And, my friend Sarah brought up a good point: most kids reading this book are going to miss at least half of the cleverly placed book titles, and yet most adults who would appreciate them are not going to read this book.)

If I had read this by myself, all of these annoyances would have overshadowed my overall enjoyment of the book. But I didn't read it by myself. I read it with Aaron, and it was so much fun.

Incidentally, Aaron hadn't been overly excited to read the book because he didn't like the cover. But about halfway through, he said, "I didn't think I was going to like this book, but now it's so good! I just want to find out what happens." We solved the picture puzzles, made real-life comparisons to the arrogant Charles Chiltington, and spied holes in the plot. We cheered on Kyle's team and booed Charles'. I appreciated the emphasis on teamwork and good sportsmanship, and Aaron didn't seem to notice them (probably a good sign, right?). In short, it was just so fun to read and discuss and enjoy a book together.

Aaron and I stayed caught up with each other for almost the whole book, but he did finish before me and inadvertently let slip a rather important spoiler when he asked what chapter I was on. I said, "52," and he said, "Oh, so has _______ happened yet?" "What?! No!" I exclaimed. "Oh, I guess that happens in Chapter 54," he admitted a little sheepishly.

I am a big advocate of adults reading adolescent literature because there are so many amazing books out there that can be enjoyed just as much as an adult as a child. This, sadly, is not one of them. However, if you are an adult reading it with a child, then I think that counteracts (or maybe enhances?) some of its juvenility and makes the whole thing worthwhile.

And, even with all it's focus on technology, the final puzzle (which is not a spoiler) is, "Once you learn how to do this, you will be forever free." The answer, of course, is READ, and I hope that's the message that kids will come away with and not that libraries are only cool if they have Dewey Decimal numbers projected on the ceiling.


  1. I really enjoyed this book but my kiddos weren't interested. Maybe it just didn't work as a read aloud for them. Would like them to quietly read it to themselves at least

  2. I remember having issues such as yours when I read this. I ended up liking the book, but it wasn't my favorite of the Cybils that year. I tried to get my youngest to read it, as he usually likes puzzles, but I don't think I was successful. It sounds like it would have made a good family book club pick, though.


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