Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library
Chris Granbenstein
Random House, 2013

Even before Willy Wonka is mentioned, readers will note the similarities between Mr. Lemoncello and Wonka: both are as quirky and eccentric as they come, and both enjoy creating a mysterious “playground” of sorts for children to explore. The nice ones survive and move ahead; the mean kids are out of luck.

In Mr. Lemoncello’s case, it’s a new library for a town that’s been without for twelve years. Mr. Lemoncello is a famous game maker–both board and video–who’s now a billionaire and decides to create the ultimate library + game for this small town that gave him his own beginnings in puzzle making and solving. In true eccentric fashion, his library will open with twelve twelve year olds playing an elaborate game of “escape from the library” in one 24-hour period. Kyle Keeley, game player extraordinaire but NOT a reader, is one of the twelve lucky participants, and he can hardly wait. His other eleven companions are the types of characters that enable the reader to immediately guess who’s going to win and who’s going to lose. After all, jerks and wimps are pretty easy to recognize, but team players nearly always get ahead–at least in books!

The game makes this book: it’s elaborate, full of tricks like holographic former librarians, and is all being supervised by the actively involved Mr. Lemoncello (albeit from a distance through video cams).

What doesn’t make this book are the very things that are probably supposed to make the book: the myriad references to libraries and books. Oh, the books which are referenced! Favorites of this reader, to be sure–grown-up books, kids’ books, old books, new books. I had a great time noting the references, some of which are quite obscure. And there’s the problem: what twelve year old who really has read enough to get all those references is going to pick this book to read next? And, if you’re a gamer like Kyle who doesn’t like to read, will you get any of the references? Will you really want to go read all those books?

No, I’m afraid Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, although it’s getting lots of praise from professional reviews, is not going to be the crowd pleaser people seem to think it will be. It’s a fun read, but it’s hard to figure out who the audience will be who really gets into this: grown-up librarians or the type of kids it’s about?

I rarely say this, but I think this book–ironically enough–would make a better movie than book. It’s high adventure and would beg for terrific special effects. But a good read? Hmm…

Age recommendation: 9-12/middle grades
Book cover from publisher