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Chris Grabenstein's new book 'The Island of Dr. Libris' explores the power of imagination

POSTED: March 30, 2015 8:59 p.m.
Hikari Loftus/

Chris Grabenstein is the author of "The Island of Dr. Libris."

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If there is something anyone can do, it’s imagine.

“Everyone has the ability,” author Chris Grabenstein said in an interview. “It’s one of the things that make us human — the ability to make stuff up out of nothing … it’s amazing. With imagination, you can take nothing and turn it into something.”

And encouraging children to strengthen their imaginations is one of the themes in Grabenstein’s latest middle grade release, “The Island of Dr. Libris” (Random House Books for Young Readers, $16.99, ages 8-12).

The story follows Billy Gillfoyle, who is reluctantly spending the summer in a lakeside cabin that belongs to one of his mother’s co-workers, Dr. Libris. Not only does Billy’s smartphone break soon after his arrival, there also is no TV in the house, there are mysterious security cameras in every room, he’s already on bad terms with some of the other children summering nearby, and his parents have decided to split.

But there are too many even bigger things going on for Billy to worry about his smashed phone for long. Every time he opens a book from Dr. Libris’ private bookcase, the ground shakes and he can hear swords clashing, bowstrings twanging and a lot of yelling coming from the direction of the island in the middle of the lake. As impossible as it seems, it sounds like the books are coming to life as Billy reads them. Billy and his friend Walter soon embark on an adventure with some of literature's greatest heroes and villains to learn that each person has the power over his or her own story.

Grabenstein’s book explores the power of using your imagination in a clever, funny and mysterious read sure to delight not only young readers but also their parents.

In a world where adults and children alike are glued to their digital devices, Grabenstein’s book aims to steer youths toward activities that will help their imaginations grow.

“I play video games and love them,” Grabenstein said. “But if you play a video game, the characters are all there, the setting is all there, and you don’t have to make up a world of your own. … I am a little afraid that we’re losing our ability to use our imagination to dream up new things, and it’s what we need to keep our advantage.”

The idea for the story, however, started from something else. While spending time with his father-in-law before he passed away, Grabenstein said, there were some long, hard days spent caring for him.

“I started thinking about how books have always helped people in bad situations,” Grabenstein said. “Where it’s as simple as waiting in line at the DMV or in the hospital room where someone you love is sick — a book can take you out of that moment.”

That experience, along with remembering his childhood, in which he pretended to be Daniel Boone or a solider in the war in the forests near his childhood home in Tennessee, brought up the thought of “being able to go into a realm where you can just live in your imagination.”

Grabenstein includes several legendary characters and related his experience writing about them to his days as an improvisational comedian.

“I used to do improvisational comedy before I did advertising, and it was always fun to do movie genres or styles,” Grabenstein said. “We used to do theater style bits, and it was kind of like I was playing improv on paper. Like, ‘Who do I need to bring the story to life?’ And I also picked a lot of characters that I think hinted a little toward writing.”

Along with his theme of imagination, Grabenstein incorporated themes about writing and discovering the power of words.

“I think it’s really important for kids (to read) because once you can read, you can do anything,” Grabenstein said. “If kids can’t read, then they are sort of cut off from everything.”

As an advocate for literacy in young people, Grabenstein tries to make his books ones a reader would want to finish in a day or two.

“I think too often we give kids books that are supposed to be good for them but they don’t want to read,” Grabenstein said. “As kids have fun, they will read … it’s just a matter of finding the right book for kids.”

Grabenstein initially began writing mystery and thriller novels for adults, which have won two Anthony and four Agatha awards. After a request that he turn one of his ghost stories into a middle grade read, he took up writing for children as well. And with 20 nieces and nephews constantly asking to read his adult novels (which he refused to let them do), he was glad to do it.

"It turned out I have a really good middle grade voice," Grabenstein said. "I blame that on many years of reading Mad magazine and watching Bullwinkle cartoons, but I might be an 11-year-old in my brain."

Grabenstein added, "I hope that readers will get that they can use their imaginations to get out of any trouble they are in. … There is great satisfaction in knowing friends are in these books whenever you need them. And then I hope that some kids will be encouraged to try writing something, to try and make something completely up off the top of their head and use their imagination like crazy. You have the power to do that; if you use your imagination and use your wits, you can make things turn out the way you want them to. Some people may disagree, but I have a Pollyanna attitude. That's why I put Pollyanna in the book."

"The Island of Dr. Libris" does not contain any bad language, sex or detailed violence.
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