What’s a kid who’s short on talent to do when he wangles – er, cheats – his way into the prestigious Music and Art Academy? Continue to fake it, of course. That’s exactly what Jake, a wisecracking African-American sixth grader, sets out to do in Jake the Fake Keeps It Real, a middle-grade novel that kicks off a series written by Craig Robinson and Adam Mansbach and illustrated by Keith Knight. Kids will make Jake’s acquaintance on March 28, when Crown Books for Young Readers will release his first caper with a 75,000-copy announced first printing and a national marketing campaign.

The collaborators’ talents and celebrity are rooted in different realms of the entertainment world. Robinson is a comedian, a pianist who tours with his own band, and an actor, best known for his work on NBC’s The Office and his roles in such films as Hot Tub Time Machine, This Is the End, and Pineapple Express. Mansbach made publishing headlines in 2011 with his bestselling, not-for-prime-time, faux bedtime book, Go the F**k to Sleep, which has been translated into 40-plus languages. He also wrote several follow-up picture books, novels for adults, and Benjamin Franklin: Huge Pain in My…, a middle-grade novel coauthored with Alan Zweibel. Award-winning cartoonist Knight is the creator of three comic strips: The Knight Life, (th)ink, and The K Chronicles.

Several strokes of serendipity brought the trio together to create Jake the Fake. Robinson and Mansbach were connected by their shared management team at 3 Arts Entertainment. Each admired the other’s work, and the idea of collaborating on a children’s book appealed to both. And Mansbach knew exactly where to find the book’s visual style. He and Knight share a friendship that began with a chance encounter more than a decade ago, when they were both living in the San Francisco area (Knight has since moved to North Carolina). “Adam and I were both invited to make presentations to a college class,” Knight recalled. “I loved what he was presenting, and he loved what I was presenting, and we discovered that we had a lot in common. We’re both originally from Boston and love the Red Sox, we’re both hip-hop fans, and we were both rappers in different bands. We’d hang out quite a lot. He had recently written Angry Black White Boy, which I loved, and I always hoped to work with him – and was waiting for that time.”

That time came when Mansbach contacted Knight about joining the Jake the Fake creative team. “Keith is a good friend and one of my favorite illustrators, and I knew that he could really bring Jake to life. I also knew that he, Craig, and I all share a sense of humor,” Mansbach said. To bring the connections full circle, Robinson and Knight once lived in the same L.A. neighborhood, and had a mutual friend. “Though we were never introduced, we would see one another here and there, and I of course knew who he was and admired his talent,” Knight recalled.

Teamwork – and Laughter – Pay Off

Corresponding mostly via email, FaceTime (and, quipped Robinson, “even avatar”), the three said they hit their collaborative stride effortlessly. “Adam did the heavy lifting, and I was more of the inspiration. I grew up as an awkward, funny musician, and Adam ran with that,” Robinson said of their co-authoring duties. Mansbach agreed: “Craig was definitely the inspiration for Jake. I did most of the writing, but Craig ramped it up. I love his voice and vibe, which really come through in the book.”

Both authors praise Knight for his creative cartooning, which provides visual gags and speech balloons that extend beyond the scope of the text. “Keith is really another writer on this project,” Mansbach observed. “He is so good with words, and in the early stages of figuring out how to collaborate, when it was suggested that we provide him with notes or suggestions, I said, ‘I’m not doing any of that. Keith’s ideas are far better than any I could cue him to – let him run with the ball.’ ”

Knight was happy to do just that. “With my other work, I’m the one who is writing as well as illustrating, and I liked the fact that this is a different gig, and is aimed at a new audience for me,” he said. “I approached it almost like jazz, saying, ‘OK, I’m going to riff on this, and do a little solo here, without calling attention to myself.’ It’s not just about illustrating what’s in the text, but going somewhere else with it.”

There’s yet another level to Knight’s affinity for the Jake the Fake series. “What I also really like about this series is that it is kind of a diverse version of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books,” he said. “As the father of boys who are four and eight, I am always looking for books with characters of color that aren’t only about race placed in an historical context. I want my sons to be able to read adventure, fantasy, and humor novels with protagonists who look like them.”

The trio’s humor and smooth collaborative process greatly impressed Phoebe Yeh, a v-p and publisher of Crown, who edits the series. “I was lucky, since the project came to me with Adam, Craig, and Keith all attached, and I received the text and art as a single entity,” she said. “They found just the right way to use humor to explore the idea of kids discovering their strengths. All three of them would do just about anything for a laugh – that was their operating principle! They were quite competitive with one another, to make the book as funny as it could be, and that may well be its magic ingredient. These are three of the smartest and funniest people I’ve ever had the chance to work with, and it has been a fabulous experience, and loads of fun.”

And there are more good times ahead. Jake will return in Jake the Fake Stands Up in March 2018, and Jake the Fake Comes Clean in March 2019. The collaborators clearly enjoy their ongoing work together. “Oh, do we laugh!” Robinson said. “Jake is the embodiment of all three of us at that awkward age when you’re trying to figure out who you are and what you’re good at – if anything! We’ve definitely had some fun with the books.” And, if Mansbach has his wish, that fun might even play out face-to-face. “Since we all live in different cities, we mostly connect virtually,” he said. “But hopefully at some point we’ll all be in the same room together. And hopefully that room will have a bar in it.”

Jake the Fake Keeps It Real by Craig Robinson and Adam Mansbach, illus. by Keith Knight. Crown, $13.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-553-52351-5