All the imaginative oddities, tricky unpredictabilities, and absurd eccentricities of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory jam-packed into a library — what an apt way to describe such an institution in the hands of a certain Mr. Luigi L. Lemoncello.
If you somehow haven’t read this yet, let me tell you upfront: read it. It has only been out since 2013, but it has already spawned two sequels, an upcoming fourth book total, and a TV movie. The overall creativity and puzzle action infused by Chris Grabenstein (author of Welcome to Wonderland and I Funny, the latter co-written with James Patterson) puts it right up there with the likes of The Puzzling World of Winston Breen by Eric Berlin or The Gollywhopper Games by Jody Feldman.
Twelve years prior to the book’s events in Alexandriaville, Ohio, its sole public library was torn down and replaced by a parking garage. In order to reinvigorate the town with bibliomania, Mr. Lemoncello, the most famous inventor of toys and games the world over, has erected a new library with his head librarian, Dr. Yanina Zinchenko. He hosts an essay contest where twelve sixth graders win invitations to a sleepover, where interactive holograms, a hover ladder that runs on maglev technology, a couple games, and, of course, books, count among the treats of the night. Soon after being jarred awake the next morning by the proud blaring of the Rocky theme song, however, the contestants realize that the building has been locked up—with them still inside. And hereupon they must summon their wits and speed to solve the upcoming puzzles, all in a thirsty bid to . . . Well, it’s right there in the title.
It doesn’t take long for the main characters—Kyle Keeley, Akimi Hughes, Miguel Fernandez, Sierra Russell, Charles Chiltington, Andrew Peckleman, and Haley Daley—to split up into two teams. Leading one of them is Kyle, a triumph-hungry boy who, without any particularly athletic or academic advantages, thrives on the thrill of a lucky roll of the die or an ace top-deck to win the game, even if he gets snake eyes or a card that sends him ten spaces back. While his design is a bit one-sided, his sheer resolution and resourcefulness make him likable enough for us to ride along with him for the competition. Chiltington, his opponent and leader of the second team, is also competitive but in a much more cutthroat manner. In fact, it’s revealed that “We eat losers for breakfast” is a family philosophy. On top of that, he’s pretentious, unctuous, and loves wearing polished suits and ties everywhere. Oddly enough, this pint-sized Dr. Frasier Crane is supposed to be fond of using long words, yet his vocabulary isn’t nearly as verbose as I prefer; personally, the discrepancy is easy to forgive for such a fun villain. The rest of the main kids toss their own fun into the action, even when dipping into cliches with Sierra, a poster girl for the bookworm, or Andrew, a classic nerd clad in goggle-like glasses. Personally, the sarcasm of Kyle’s good friend, Akimi, makes her my favorite character.
It’s obvious that the one in the limelight is Mr. Lemoncello, the man who ambles and saunters everywhere with loose limbs, whips up words like “wondermous” and “stinkerrific,” makes an appearance in things like banana shoes or a plumed pirate hat, and wittily drops book title references into his smooth chatter. I have to say it again—Willy Wonka got twisted, bent, and twisted some more to come up with this gamemaker, ending with a fresh take on the eccentric old genius type.
The storyline faces no difficulty in finding its feet as the book starts with Kyle bolting against his older brothers in a game of Mr. Lemoncello’s Indoor-Outdoor Scavenger Hunt. It builds up a swift gait when he goes on to enter the essay contest and advance onward to the new library and its multitude of puzzles. Then the run kicks into maximum speed in the climax, where the clock’s ticking and the kids are racing to uncover the library’s secret exit.
The ingenuity of the puzzles is reminiscent of the The Puzzling World of Winston Breen and The Gollywhopper Games, yet Grabenstein establishes his own style with the rebuses, riddles, and book hunts. The events are logical and easy to comprehend, even when the interconnected stumpers rely on minuscule details like calendar dates and Dewey decimal classifications—things that could easily turn into their own enormous enigmas in the pen of a clumsy writer.
The first quality to clearly stand out in Grabenstein’s narration for this book is an ability to concisely and richly describe his world so you can crisply imagine it for yourself, e.g. “a sly twinkle sparkling in Mr. Lemoncello’s coal-black eyes,” or “a car that looked like a giant red boot on wheels. It had a strip of notched black boot sole for its bumper. Thick shoelaces crisscrossed their way up from the windshield to the top of a ten-foot-tall boot collar.” The second quality is a dexterous handle on powerful verbs, whether someone’s looping around the balcony, dashing up the stairs, or hobbling around the bookcases. None of that vigor comes with modest comparisons like “going” or “moving.” On top of all that, snappy dialogue is an additional plus, its sprinkling of sarcastic or cheeky humor eliciting a few chuckles.
The narration does spread itself too thin into a puddle at times, since the multiple third-person view is used significantly for Kyle, Charles, and Haley; it’s also used for one small scene with Andrew. Something closer to an omniscient view punctuates the pattern for two more small scenes. Dropping one of the perspectives might have helped clarify on whom we’re supposed to focus.
Overall, Grabenstein strikes the right notes, filling the colorful setting with an array of clever puzzles and characters who are mostly familiar but nonetheless enjoyable. His vivid style of writing should make it easy for even the most reluctant of readers to absorb themselves into the book and its most fantastical elements.
Windup Score: 92/100