Tuesday, July 23, 2013

2014 Contenders: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library, by Chris Grabenstein

Luigi Lemoncello is the most famous game designer in the world, and twelve-year-old Kyle Keeley is one of his biggest fans. So when Kyle finds out that the town's new library has been funded and designed by Mr. Lemoncello, he's excited. When it turns out that the twelve winners of a school essay contest will be invited to a lock-in at the library before it even opens -- and that, against all odds, he's one of the winners -- he's ecstatic. However, the lock-in is only the beginning. The first one of the children to solve the puzzle of the library itself and figure out the secret exit will win the grandest prize of all, and Kyle is determined to beat the game.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library owes something to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and quite a bit to The Westing Game, both titles that are explicitly referenced in the book. It also bears a resemblance to a more recent novel, The Puzzling World of Winston Breen, with its engaging cast of juvenile puzzle-solvers and seemingly inscrutable clues. However, the cleverness of the central conceit -- how do we get out of this building? -- is original enough to ensure that Escape doesn't read like a mere photocopy or homage.

As much as Escape is a mystery, it's also a love letter to libraries, books, and reading. The descriptions of the new library are filled with unabashed affection. Dozens upon dozens of children's literature titles new and old are referenced -- at times, Mr. Lemoncello's dialogue seems to consist of little else. And a large part of the story is not only about solving the mystery, but about the way that Kyle, who loves games of all kinds, but isn't much of a reader, comes to appreciate the joy of books.

The mystery and its associated puzzles are expertly designed and presented. The few quibbles that I had with the novel largely had to do with the moments when I felt like the subtext (books! reading!) was overshadowing the main narrative. Some of our longtime readers might remember from my discussion of Okay for Now that I'm very leery of authors overtly extolling the virtues of books, and in a few instances, Escape pushed that particular button of mine.

It wasn't enough, though, to really keep me from enjoying Escape. I don't think it's on the same level as The Real Boy, but I think it's firmly in the next tier of contenders. I wouldn't go so far as to predict an Honor for it, but I can tell you that, if it is recognized by the committee on Newbery Day 2014, I won't be at all surprised.

Published in June by Random House

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