The mind behind Mr. Lemoncello

The mind behind Mr. Lemoncello

New Nickelodeon movie based on children's book by former Chattanooga resident

October 8th, 2017 by Barry Courter in Life Entertainment

Characters Kyle (Casey Simpson), Akimi (Breanna Yde) and Sierra (Klarke Pipkin) are chased by the Wicked Witch from the East (Breanna Watkins) in "Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library."

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

It wasn't the book Chris Grabenstein set out to write, but "The Crossroads" marked a turning point for the author, thanks to a book editor who rejected the original.

Grabenstein, who had already won awards and impressed critics with his earliest mystery novels, had submitted a ghost story for adults. But the editor gave it a thumbs-down, suggesting instead that it would make an interesting story for young readers.

"After I cut out about 70,000 words and took out the adult stuff," Grabenstein says. "I tried it and found this inner child in me. I kind of lost interest in writing for adults after that."

That was in 2008 and Grabenstein, a 1973 graduate of Notre Dame High School, has since written numerous best-selling books for kids, including multiple titles with James Patterson, who was his boss when Grabenstein worked in advertising.

Now Grabenstein's "Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library" has been made into a Nickelodeon movie, premiering Monday night at 7. The next day, the third book in the series, "Mr. Lemoncello's Great Library Race," will hit bookstores.

The day we talked, he was in Los Angeles for the media premiere of the movie.

To see it

“Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library” airs at 7 p.m. Monday on Nickelodeon (Comcast channel 16, EPBFI channel 59 in Chattanooga).

"It's pretty exciting," he said of the events. "I'm not sure if they are doing the whole red-carpet thing or not, but it's pretty cool."

The premise of "Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library" is that a dozen 12-year-olds have to escape from the craziest library in the world using only the resources found in the library.

It's a fast-paced adventure in which readers can solve the clues along with the characters while learning about things like the Dewey Decimal System.

Grabenstein says the book series is an homage to his teachers and the library at Notre Dame. One particular teacher was especially encouraging to him and opened up the world of books and writing.

"Schaack Van Deusen said writing and being a writer was just as cool as playing football," Grabenstein says. "He was that teacher for a lot of people."

Grabenstein has dedicated two of his books to Van Deusen, who coached wrestling and taught theater at Notre Dame and Baylor. Through his own writing and talks he gives to school kids live and via Skype, Grabenstein has also inspired kids.

In one case, he learned of a young boy who kept getting into trouble. His teacher gave him a copy of the first "Mr. Lemoncello" and he became obsessed, reading it on the playground, at home, on the bus. When Grabenstein heard from the young man thanking him for writing the book, he sent him another book.

The young man came to a book signing, and Grabenstein bought him a copy of every book he'd written.

"Last year, he wrote his own book," Grabenstein says. "I get emails all the time. My books appeal to kids with short attention spans."

Grabenstein and his wife, J.J., have no kids of their own, but he says he grew up on television and Mad Magazine. He credits both with helping him channel his 8-year-old inner self.

"Kids tell me I write visually. I just remember hanging out in sixth grade [at Thrasher Elementary on Signal Mountain], and one kid brought a record player and we would listen to records."

When he writes, he says, he listens to The Monkees and it helps remind of him what being a preteen and young teen was like. He says kids today have the same wants and worries as he did, but there is one thing about being a kid today that makes his work challenging.

"The hardest part these days is to find a reason for kids to be without parental supervision," he says. "Now their lives are so structured."

If kids today were to just get on their bikes and ride off unsupervised looking for an adventure today, the parents would be in big trouble.

Grabenstein studied communications and theater at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville before moving to New York City. There, he performed with several improvisational comedy troupes, occasionally working alongside people like Bruce Willis and Robin Williams.

He also wrote for Jim Henson and his Muppets and later co-wrote, with Ronald Venable, a 1986 TV movie titled "The Christmas Gift." It starred John Denver and is still shown around the holidays.

"I know because my mother calls to tell me," he says. "Usually at 3 a.m."

Contact Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.