When I visit or Skype with schools, kiddos inevitably ask, “Why did you become a writer?”

To which I reply: “Because, when I was in fifth grade, I wasn’t good at anything else.”

Chris in the fifth grade

Chris in the fifth grade

Especially sports.  Name the athletic competition, and I was terrible at it!

Which, of course, makes it semi-ironic that the second LEMONCELLO book has a sports/Olympics plot at its core.

At my elementary school, we played kick ball during recess.   I was one of the few fifth graders who could strike out.  Swinging.  They’d roll that ball right at my foot and I’d WHIFF!  Three times in a row.

Needless to say I was also picked on by bullies when I was in the fifth grade.   For some reason, one particular bully called me “The Groove.”  I’m not sure why.  I mean it was the 1960s and “The Groove” sounded pretty cool.   Why did the bully pick on me?  He thought my eyes were too big.

(For a detailed description of my encounters with said bully, you can read my first middle grades book/ghost story THE CROSSROADS.   What Kyle Snertz does to my hero, Zack Jennings, He-Who-Will-Not-Be-Named-Because-He’s-A-Big-Fancy-Pants-Dermatologist-in-Chattanooga-Tennessee did to me.)

My fifth grade salvation came wrapped up in brown paper every month:  MAD MAGAZINE.

My elementary school didn’t have much of a library.  My small town of Signal Mountain, Tennessee didn’t have a public library – just a scary old house with a few musty bookshelves and a kind of creepy lady who sat on the porch in a creaky rocking chair while cackling, “Want to check out a book, sonny?” as she sized you up for her gingerbread oven.

MAD taught me the power of words.

I particularly loved Al Jaffee’s recurring “Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions.”

are they twins

Before long, I was fighting back against the bullies with witty repartee.  Well, with snappy answers anyway.  It’s one of the reasons I like the character of Billy Gillfoyle in THE ISLAND OF DR. LIBRIS so much.  He uses words to defend himself.

I bought my first subscription to MAD magazine when I was ten years old. I think it cost less than five dollars for the whole year. I still subscribe today.  It costs a little more.


Every month, MAD magazine was filled with hysterical satires of TV shows and movies, sarcastic spoofs, and funny fake ads.   The thing was pure irreverence in ink and paper.

I think MAD (along with the Rocky And Bullwinkle cartoons) did more to spark my love of words and humor than anything else during my middle school years.

Thinking back, I remember my monthly installment of MAD magazine arrived by mail in a plain brown wrapper because some adults thought its satire and lack of respect for authority made it questionable, maybe even subversive.  Many of those adults also thought the magazine should be banned; that impressionable children (such as me) should not be allowed to read it.

But, read it I did. (Maybe even more hungrily because I knew reading it was considered a form of rebellion.)

When I did improvisational comedy in a Greenwich Village theatre – what The New York Times described as “basically impudent madness” in one of its reviews of our show – we were called The First Amendment Improvisation and Comedy Company.   Nightly, we exercised our First Amendment right of freedom of speech to poke fun at politicians and current events and goofy trends and just about anything that needed fun poked at it.  We were a living, breathing MAD magazine.

MR. LEMONCELLO'S LIBRARY OLYMPICSAnd now that I am an author, I always feel a small surge of pride when I read that tiny mouse type printed inside the front all of my Random House books:  “Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.”

That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY OLYMPICS.  In this sequel, Mr. Lemoncello is looking for the “true champions” of the library.  An elite corps of Intellectual Freedom Fighters.  There is a very strong banned books theme running through the new novel but it’s presented in what I hope will be a fun and entertaining way.

It would be great if this new book could help stimulate classroom discussions about what the First Amendment truly means — something I learned when I was in the fifth grade by reading MAD magazine.

And isn’t that cover spectacular?

Thank you Gilbert Ford for making Mr. Lemoncello look so good!

Chris Grabenstein is the author of the New York Times bestsellers THE ISLAND OF DR. LIBRIS and ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY as well as the co-author (with James Patterson) of the #1 Bestsellers I FUNNY, I EVEN FUNNIER, and TREASURE HUNTERS. Currently, Chris and his beautiful, beloved wife J.J. live in New York City with three cats (Parker, Tiger Lilly, & Phoebe Squeak) and a dog named Fred who starred in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on Broadway. You can find Chris online at and on Twitter as @CGrabenstein