Thursday, June 11, 2015

2016 Contenders: The Island of Dr. Libris, by Chris Grabenstein

Billy is spending the summer at a cabin owned by  the mysterious Dr. Xiang Libris. (X Libris. Yeah. It's that kind of book.)  There's no tv, no internet, and, conveniently, no smartphone: Billy's iPhone breaks as soon as they arrive at the cabin. Oh, but do you know what there is instead? A mysterious library! Because of course there is. And do you know what happens when Billy reads the books? The characters come to life! Because of course they do.

Before long, Billy has populated the island in the middle of the lake with Hercules, Robin Hood and Friends, and even Pollyanna (because we're expected to believe that a twelve year old boy would willingly pick up and read Pollyanna). In addition to trying to deal with the mayhem caused by the fictional characters, Billy has to figure out some way to stop his parents' divorce. Because of course he does.

Are you getting that I'm not terribly impressed by this book? (Full disclosure: I listened to this one as an audiobook as well, and it was narrated by Kirby Heyborne, who is narratorial anathema to me.) I had actually been looking forward to it, since it's by the same author as Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library, which many people enjoyed. It did not live up to my expectations.

I'm probably judging The Island of Dr. Libris a bit harshly because I am emphatically not the right reader for this book. The publisher's blurb mentions that it "celebrates the power of imagination." I am tired of books that claim to celebrate "the power of imagination" or "the power of story," because they usually fail to do so. Story and imagination celebrate themselves when deployed effectively.

I am also tired of books that celebrate books, and reading itself, in heavy-handed ways. If you're trying to push this kind of message within the pages of a 242 page novel for 9-12 year olds, you're preaching to the choir. Non-readers are not reading this.

Finally, I'm super triple tired of books that pit Real Books against Evil Electronic Devices. You guys, that kind of thinking feels so crotchety. I've been spending a lot of time on Tumblr lately, and it's full of tweens and teens who see no boundary between books and screens, and who spend their time not only discussing, but also creating fan art based on their favorite fictional worlds. If you take away their iPhones, where are they going to write about all of their Harry Potter headcanons

Anyway... aside from the fact that it offends me on a fundamental level, is the book any good? I guess it's a fairly competent adventure story, and many readers will enjoy the way the fictional worlds collide (Hercules joining Robin Hood's band of Merry People, etc.). I will note that the characters are not terribly well-developed, especially Billy's mother, who manages to be the stereotypical unfun mom despite the fact that she's getting a PhD in math. 

It would probably make a fun vacation read, and if you hand it to to the literary-minded kids you know, I won't even judge you. Much. 

Published March 24th 2015 by Random House Books for Young Readers


  1. "Anyway... aside from the fact that it offends me on a fundamental level, is the book any good?" Hee. My kid ADORES it, and adored Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library, about which I yucked her yum with all my eye-rolling, so I'm really trying hard not to judge this one. Much.

    1. Haha! You know what my kid is reading now? These Holly Webb "baby animals in peril" books:

      They're so terrible. She loves them so much.

  2. you mention headcanon *FIST PUMP*

  3. "Story and imagination celebrate themselves when deployed effectively." - Preach on, sister girl.

    I wasn't a fan of Mr. Lemoncello's Library. At all. It was hamfisted and trite, and this title sounds even worse.

    As for the whole battle between physical books and digital books, I feel like adults are making it a bigger deal than it is. Every year I conduct a needs assessment survey of my students, and every year the results are close to the same: kids love both formats. And readers will read no matter what. So let's not act like eBooks are inherently evil and print books are going to die out. It isn't going to happen.

    And even if it does, we'll all be ok. We will.

    Ok. Now I'm ranting on your blog. #badform