For some authors, presenting to more than 1,500 elementary students in a 2,000-seat theater would be a daunting prospect. For Chris Grabenstein, author of the bestselling Mr. Lemoncello series, it’s oxygen. Drawing from his experience as a former comedy troupe member, he gets students involved right away with improv games. Do the students think he can write a story right then and there? Challenge accepted! There are story starter cards with first sentences and last sentences, emergency words, and volunteer helpers. The rules of improv (“Yes, and”) apply and imaginations are fully engaged. Like his famous puzzle-maker character, Grabenstein sneaks bits of learning into his “act.” “Verbs are the most powerful words in any sentence,” audiences learn. Students are empowered to write their own stories, much to the delight of their teachers, Grabenstein says.
While the author has put his improvisational skills to good use adapting to Zoom school visits in the past few years, he’s happily doing hybrid and in-person events again with the release of Mr. Lemoncello’s Very First Game, out May 3 from Random House Books for Young Readers.
Grabenstein resumed his on-stage presence April 14 with a long-delayed appearance at the Palace Theater in Marion, Ohio. A 2020 visit—scheduled to coincide with the release and district-wide donation of Shine, the middle grade novel he co-wrote with his wife J.J.—had to be canceled due to Covid. This month’s event marked Grabenstein’s return to connecting in person with readers—busloads of children from the school district’s elementary schools. “Just like getting back on a bike,” he said of the experience.
The official Mr. Lemoncello’s Very First Game launch on May 3 will be a hybrid ticketed event hosted by Houston’s Brazos Bookstore, with a livestream option available. Additional events next week include virtual visits with eight schools (800 students) arranged through Hicklebee’s in San Jose, Calif., and 21 schools (1,000 students) with Northshire Books in Manchester, Vt. Grabenstein will be one of the headlining authors at the Montclair Literary Festival in Montclair, N.J., which will be held May 5–8.
For the sixth book in the Lemoncello series, readers will learn for the first time about Mr. Lemoncello’s backstory. Young Luigi struggles to distinguish himself as the sixth in a family of 10 talented siblings. His brothers and sisters are good at everything—Francesca, a future brain surgeon; Fabio, already pegged as a lawyer; Arianna, a musical prodigy. Luigi feels like he falls short in everything he tries. What he does love are puzzles and games. As his siblings taunt him for wasting time on frivolous pursuits, Luigi’s confidence plummets. Plus, he’s also being bullied by that jerk Chad Chiltington, whose family name readers will recognize from the other Lemoncello books. But when a carnival comes to town and Luigi meets Professor Marvelmous, his fate begins to change and he discovers that he’s got some very special talents, too.
Like the character he created, Grabenstein said he grew up in a family of overachieving siblings, now doctors and lawyers. Becoming a writer wasn’t necessarily a path he saw as open to him until he got the encouragement of a beloved seventh grade teacher, Mrs. June Garrett, at Signal Mountain Junior High School in Chattanooga, Tenn. With Mrs. Garrett’s support, he wrote a parody school advice column called “Dear Gertrude,” and leaned in to his comedic sensibility. While Mr. Lemoncello’s Very First Game contains the puzzles and codes that his readers have come to love, Grabenstein said the book is also an homage to the mentors in children’s lives who help them discover their true calling.
Lemoncello fans (or Lemonheads as they call themselves, according to Grabenstein) will find the answers to questions that may have intrigued them about some of Mr. Lemoncello’s distinctive quirks. Why does he always wear a top hat, for example? How did he start dropping book titles into his conversations? And what’s the deal with those banana shoes? But Mr. Lemoncello’s first game also works as a stand-alone title for those who have yet to be introduced to the series.
Outside of the Lemoncello series, Grabenstein is the author of more than six dozen books for children, including the Max Einstein books, Haunted Mystery series, and the House of Robots books, co-written with his former boss, James Patterson. Before coming to children’s book writing, Grabenstein had a long career in advertising and TV writing (including writing for The Muppets). He also wrote mysteries for adults. Upper elementary school kids are his sweet spot, though.
“I love writing for this age group,” he said. He speculates he might be on the fourth generation of Lemoncello readers already (“There’s a new class of fifth graders every year”). He still gets at least 20 emails a week from readers solving the puzzles in Lemoncello books, (Only about 1% of readers have solved them, he said, so they receive a gif of balloons in congratulations for their success.)
Returning to classrooms, bookstores, and the stage helps inform his work as a writer, Grabenstein said. “You learn what’s on kids’ minds.” Not to mention the fact that it’s fun. And like Mr. Lemoncello, the author loves fun and games.
Mr. Lemoncello’s Very First Game by Chris Grabenstein. Random House, $17.99 May 3 ISBN 978-0-593-48083-0