A podcast interview with Chris Grabenstein
The Children’s Book Review
In this episode of The Growing Readers Podcast, Chris Grabenstein talks about writing, reading, and his new hilariously profound picture book No Is All I Know and the latest book in The Smartest Kid in the Universe series: Evil Genius.
We discuss Chris’s time in a top New York City improvisational comedy troupe performing with Bruce Willis and sometimes even Robin Williams. How writing for Jim Henson’s Muppets, co-writing the movie The Christmas Gift (starring John Denver), and working in advertising with James Patterson has shaped his writing now, as well as the art of never being boring when writing for kids.
Listen to the Interview
Chris Grabenstein is the multiple award-winning, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the MR. LEMONCELLO, HAUNTED MYSTERY, WELCOME TO WONDERLAND, SMARTEST KID IN THE UNIVERSE, and DOG SQUAD series. He also wrote THE ISLAND OF DR. LIBRIS, SHINE (with his wife J.J.), the picture book NO MORE NAPS, and many, many other books, plays, and audiobook originals. Chris and J.J. Grabenstein live in New York City with two cats and lots of ideas.
Read the Transcription
Bianca Schulze: Well, hello, Chris. Welcome to the Growing Readers podcast.
Chris Grabenstein: Oh, thank you so much. It’s good to be here. And let’s watch some readers grow. Let’s water these readers so they can grow.
Bianca Schulze: Absolutely, absolutely. Well, before we get into talking about your new books, Chris, I loved reading some really fun facts about you on your website. I’m going to share a few. I have them written down here. So, you performed with some of New York City’s top improvisational comedy troops, and Bruce Willis was in your comedy group before he became Bruce Willis. And the late Robin Williams, who I adored, would drop by to perform with your comedy gang. So, what was that like being in that comedy troupe?
Chris Grabenstein: It was fun. Bruce was just— we were all, you do those kinds of things in, like, basement theaters down in Greenwich Village, hoping that an agent or a talent scout will come by, and you make no money whatsoever. And Bruce was just Bruce, the bartender. I was Chris, the Typist, and so we were all doing something else to make our money while we did that. And then I think he got cast in an off-Broadway show, which sort of started his trajectory.
And then Robin Williams loved doing improvisational comedy. And at that time, this was like the early 1980s; there were only two troops in New York City, and he’d find out where we were performing, and his people would say Robin might come by, and word would spread. Somehow word would spread. And suddenly, our little basement theater that had maybe 1520 people every Saturday night was jam-packed. Don’t tell the fire department with, like, 100 people, and it was terrific. Robin Williams was the shyest person I have ever met in my life. He would go out on the stage, and the people would love everything, laughing their heads off, and he’d come backstage and go: Do you think they liked it? Yeah. You’re Robin Williams. They loved it.
Bianca Schulze: That’s fantastic. Well, you’ve also written for Jim Henson’s Muppets. You co-wrote a movie, The Christmas Gift, that starred John Denver. And I live right near Denver. And anyway, that’s irrelevant, but—
Chris Grabenstein: They filmed it in Georgetown, Colorado.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, you did?
Chris Grabenstein: They did. It was the first script my buddy and I from college wrote, so we didn’t write the final shooting script, nor were we invited to the shoot. But I have been to Georgetown since I think I was out there when I was in advertising on a business meeting. So, let’s go up to Georgetown, and they’ve got, like, quite a shrine to the movie up there.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, that’s so cool. I’m a skier, so we tend to drive past Georgetown a lot. I should probably stop and check it out.
Chris Grabenstein: They’ve got a wonderful holiday market Christmas tree thing, and they have a lot of John Denver, like, sing-along things in Georgetown.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, very cool. I’m glad I know that now. Well, you’ve also written radio and television commercials for many big brands, including food and beverage giants Burger King, Seven Up, Dr. Pepper, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. And another quick tangent because this is where our lives kind of connect. I used to be a television extra, and I was in a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial.
Chris Grabenstein: It might have been in one of mine. I ran the business for six or seven years in the 90s. In the 1990s, when I was doing that.
Bianca Schulze: Teah, it was the 90’s and was in Australia. So, I don’t know if they ran the same ads, but so fun. Well, and for the last fun fact, your boss was a very talented advertising writer named James Patterson, and now you write books together. A lot of books.
Chris Grabenstein: I think we’ve done— People can’t see, but you can see that shelf— we’ve done three dozen books together.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. That’s amazing. I know. I was going to start counting how many books you’ve actually written. And I’m going to tell you the truth; I gave up. Do you even know how many books?
Chris Grabenstein: I don’t really know. If you start adding in, like, I sometimes get asked to contribute to short story collections or essay collections, and it’s somewhere near like six dozen. I think.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. That’s amazing. Chris, who do you wish could see you now?
Chris Grabenstein: Oh, the kid who picked on me when I was in the 7th-grade bully, Bobby Younger, who almost got his name in a book once because my very first book for kids was going to be a bully in it. And I said, well, I’m finally going to have my revenge. That’s one of the great things about being a writer. You can finally have revenge on some people. So, I’m going to have my main character in this ghost story. My first book for kids was called The Crossroads. And I’m going to have my main character picked on by a bully who’s going to pick on the exact same way that Bobby Younger picked on me because he’s now a big famous doctor somewhere, I think in Tennessee somewhere. But I’m gonna let everyone know that Bobby Younger, when he was a kid, was nothing but a mean bully.
And so, I wrote it. And my main character, there’s a ghost who helps him. He says, pull down Bobby Younger’s pants and show everyone, even though he’s 14, he wears big boy underpants because Bobby Younger poops his pants. So, I was having all this fun, and I’m writing it all up. Then my mother called me up, and she said, Chris, guess who I just talked to? I said, who? Mrs. Younger. Remember her? Is lived down the street from us? Yes. Had that boy named Bobby. Yes. She reads all your books. Reads them two or three times. So, I quickly called up Random House. I said we need to do a global name change. Please change Bobby Younger to Kyle Snirts. Or an old lady in Tennessee is going to have a heart attack. So that’s why I wish Bobby Younger could see me now.
Bianca Schulze: That’s hilarious. I was trying so hard not to laugh too loud because I wanted everybody to hear you. That was amazing. I love your voices, too, Chris. I have never seen you read one of your books, but I can just imagine that you bring the house down with all of your character voices.
Chris Grabenstein: I do. In live in person, people say you should do the audiobooks. I say, no, I’m too big and broad. My wife is the audiobook narrator in this family. Because you don’t want my voice in your head. Well, I don’t know. I was a disc jockey. That’s how I paid my way through college and used to do funny voices on the radio, too.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, you definitely have that tone of a radio voice. Well, let’s get into writing books for children. I want to know what drives you and guides you in creating books for kids.
Chris Grabenstein: I try to remember what I felt like when I was that age. And the first thing— and everything I write, I remember: I did not like to read when I was a kid. They used to call me a reluctant reader. I would like to consider myself a super critical reader. I just wanted stories that got like a movie projector going in my brain. And if you did that, if you grabbed me by the first page and didn’t let go, then I would devour your book in a day. But if you describe the dew on the grass and the emotional feelings of the leaves as they drifted down from the limbs of the tree, you would basically be putting me to sleep. So, I always try to write for kids who might be like me.
And I think there’s probably even more now with the advent of video games and handheld devices that can dazzle and quickly gratify your entertainment needs, that I try to write fast-paced, fun reads for kids. And then I always tell other authors that you have to remember what you felt like when you were a kid, not what you did. Because kids today don’t want to read about it—unless you do like a period piece, a time-traveling piece, and said it. I was a kid in the late 60s, early seventies. I don’t think they want to hear about my bell bottoms, but the way you felt when you were a kid.
The example I sometimes use is if you were at the chalkboard, which we had when I went to school. Nobody has a chalkboard now, so don’t put a chalkboard in your book, but if you were at the front of the class and you hadn’t done your homework. And you didn’t know how to do the math problem because you hadn’t done your homework. Those props have all changed. But that feeling that you had, like, I should have done my homework, and that would still be the same for a twelve-year-old kid today.
So, what I do is when I was in 6th grade, there was a band called The Monkees. They did Daydream Believer, and songs like that were very big. And we used to listen at recess; we used to listen to Monkee’s music. So, I put on The Monkee’s music, and I look at my old pictures from fifth and 6th grade, and I just try to remember how I felt when I was that age.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, that’s fantastic. Now I have the hey, hey, we’re the Monkees.
Chris Grabenstein: And people say we monkey around, but we’re too busy singing to put anybody down. Great lyrics back then.
Bianca Schulze: Great lyrics, exactly.
Well, ahead of our chat, I gave you a couple of questions, and something that you wrote back with was with your writing, never be boring. And I think that just those simple words are it’s such excellent advice, especially, like you said, when we’re competing against technology devices and kids wanting to make all the TikTok dances.
So, on the theme of never being boring, I read so many children’s books, and what I love about your books is that your writer’s voice feels current without sounding like a grown-up trying too hard. And so, how do you find the right voice? And I feel like you just touched on that a little bit. But if we were to dig deeper beyond just trying to remember what it feels like to be a kid, what’s the secret to finding a writer’s voice that isn’t boring? And is it just having a really good editor?
Chris Grabenstein: No. In my case, it all started or didn’t all start. I probably was doing it originally, but a lot of it stems from those almost 20 years I spent doing advertising. And James Patterson was my boss. He was the executive creative director. I was like the junior copywriter, like the first kids in the door. And they actually had training programs back then. I don’t think any corporations do that anymore. They can’t afford to do it.
But he came in one day to teach us about creative how to write advertising. And back then, he had this big bushy beard, and he came into a conference room, and he stood at the Lectern, very serious Madison Avenue kind of setting, said, all right, I’m going to show you, teach you how to make a million dollars a year in advertising. The secret is— and before he could say another word, this kind of knucklehead guy came running in the door with a banana cream pie and slammed it in James Patterson’s face. And there was custard and goo and crust clinging from his beard, and he cleaned himself up a little bit. And all of us because we’re like new hires, going, he’s so fired. He’s so fired.
And Jim cleaned himself up a little bit, and he said, okay, I just showed you how to make a million dollars a year in advertising. Throw a pie in their face. And once you have their attention, say something smart. And that’s why most of my books start with a pie in the face. Something is happening. If you grab my attention and have something going on, I’ll stick around. You can drop in; you can peel the layers of the onion and do the exposition later. It’s like, yeah, I want to know I’m in capable hands. Because this started out with a bang, and he’s the one.
Because when we did advertising—this again, I did it 1984 to, like, 1999. So, DVRs had not been invented yet. So, our big bane was the remote control. We had literally three to 5 seconds to get the readers, the viewers the listeners’ attention. Or they could reach for that remote control and zap us to the next channel because there weren’t as many channels back then. Or if you were in a car and they stopped playing the music that you were really listening to the radio for and a commercial came on, if you didn’t like that commercial, you could push the button. So, his advice always was, always write as if nobody wants to or has to read anything you’ve written that you have to grab their attention with every word, every sentence, every paragraph. So, I always hear that in my head.
And I have some internal rules like in The Smartest Kid in the Universe or a Lemoncello book. The chapters are not going to be more than 500 to 700 words long, and each one’s going to end with a cliffhanger because I come from a theater background, too. So, when the curtain falls at the end of Act One, something happens that makes you go I think I’ll come back and see what happens in Act Two. Because you could go, this is boring. I’m going to go. Now I can go out to the parking lot pretty easily. No one will notice. So, you always have to. When you do a play, and someone described—because I’ve just started doing picture books, every time you turn the page of a picture book, every second page has got to be a curtain riser. It’s got to be something to make the kids say, show me what happens next.
So, there’s certain technical things you do, but overall, the overriding thing is, don’t be boring.
Bianca Schulze: I did love when I was reading Evil Genius, just how the chapters are so short. And as a mom of three kids, some nights you don’t have a lot of time, but you want to make sure you get some reading in. And just to do one quick chapter and have your kid go, please, please, just one more, just one more. And I love that your books allow that. So, it’s great.
Chris Grabenstein: That’s intentional. I put that in. I get a lot of nice emails from teachers. If they do read aloud in the classrooms, they get to go, One more, one more. Then she’ll go; it’s recess. You get to go out and play. No, read one more chapter. Those are my favorite emails.
Bianca Schulze: Is there anything that you do in your day-to-day practices to aid your creativity that you could share to inspire creativity in anyone listening?
Chris Grabenstein: Go for a walk without any earbuds or headphones for 30 minutes. And it’s kind of hard to do. There’s so many great podcasts to listen to, and I have so much Bruce Springsteen music I love, and books, audiobooks. I listen, so I try to go for a three-mile walk every day. I used to go running, but then the hips and the knees started saying, no, you’re not going to be able to do that anymore. So, I do try to go for like a three-mile walk.
And what I try to do is not listen to anything for the first mile of that walk. And I got to get back into doing what I used to do when we had a dog is I’d take the dog on four walks a day. One would be in the morning, and that was a great time for daydreaming. And then the second walk would be around 11:30. So, you’d be in the middle of writing, and ideas would bubble up. And then the third walk would be at 4:30 when I’m burned out. I can’t write anymore. But I’d find that I’d start daydreaming, and I’d start thinking about when I was going to write the next day.
And all through my career, when I was writing for commercials and stuff, walking has been very important, walking and daydreaming, if you can walk without distractions. I read somewhere that Charles Dickens used to walk for like 5 miles a day. He was quite a walker. Because walking, there’s something about the rhythm of the pace. And I walk in Central Park here in New York City. So, I’m not like sightseeing. I kind of know where I am. I know the trees, I know where the water is, and I’ll take time to admire the changing of the seasons, but it becomes almost meditative. So, I say, go for a walk.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, that’s such great advice. And I think that’s also why some writers say their ideas come to them once they’re lying down in bed. And I suspect that’s because that’s the first time in the entire day that they have stopped, and they’re just in their own head without all the input from the world, too. So, I think having a walk during the day with no earbuds is great advice.
Chris Grabenstein: Very interesting. There was a guy back in my advertising day. I hope I get this right. I think his name was James Webb Young. And they asked him so many times, where do you get your ideas for commercials? Where do you get your ideas for commercials? That he did a semi-scientific analysis and wrote this thin, thin little book called A Technique for Producing Ideas. And in there, he said, the first step is to do everything rational that you can to take in.
Like, if I’m working on the Smartest Kid book, all the research about the stuff I found about ingestible knowledge and stuff, I put all that into my brain. Then you sit down, and you write the bad ideas. You write the first-level ideas. Then is, either the third or fourth step in his process is to walk away from the project completely. Go do something like watch a play, watch a movie, listen to some music, or go for a walk, because that gives your subconscious time to chew on and process all the things you put into your conscious brain. And then you will have an AHA moment.
I always tell my wife I can’t believe I’ve made my living since 1984, trusting that an idea will pop up about Kentucky Fried Chicken or about Mr. Lemoncello, whatever it is. Like, my whole career has been based on trusting that some moment when I’m washing dishes, taking a shower, walking the dog, or just walking, an idea will bubble up in my head. You have to do the homework first. You have to put in all the rational thoughts. But if you trust your subconscious, it will play and come up with a connection that you go, oh, yeah, and thought about that.
Bianca Schulze: There is a saying that you need to be a reader before you can be a writer. And so I’m curious if you agree with that. And if so, was there a pivotal moment in which you considered yourself a reader?
Chris Grabenstein: Yes, I think that is absolutely true. That Stephen King, who is one of my—I always read his book on writing a memoir of the craft. That was what encouraged me that maybe I could go from writing 30-word commercials to when I was writing adult books, 120,000-word books. But he says that definitely.
And I think I was a reader, even though I was a reluctant reader when I was growing up. In the grade that I now write, for, like third through 5th, 6th grade, we didn’t have books in school. There was a technique or a teaching program sweeping the country called SRA. And sometimes when I talk at schools and some of the older teachers will start going, oh, yeah, I remember that. And there were these big boxes of color-coded essays. The essays were only three or four pages long. You’d read those, and then there’d be ten to 20 questions, content questions that you had to answer. When you did enough blues, you got to read the reds. From the reds, you went to the silvers and the gold. So, I think they were teaching us how to take SAT tests because that’s pretty much the format of an SAT test. So, we never read books in school.
So, my fun reading, and that’s what I would encourage. Let your kids read for fun. I read a lot of comic books. I was more into the Archie comic books and the Richie Rich comic books. I guess I read them— I remember reading Superman comic books, too. And I read a lot of Mad magazines. And so, I still have some of my collection of Mad magazines here in my office, and that’s what I read for fun. And I would save up my money all year, my allowance. We’d go to Florida in the summer, and there was a store there called Web City, which was like this goofy department store, and they had all the Mad books, and they cost like $0.25 or $0.50 back then, and I’d have my $5. I’d saved up all my holiday money and my birthday money, and I would buy like ten Mad books.
So, I would think that my teachers would go, that’s not reading. But it was reading. And it taught me so much about how to use words because Mad Magazine was all parodies and satires and taking the stuffing out of people. It was kind of fun. That informed me more than almost anything except Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons because those informed me a lot, too.
Bianca Schulze: Watch me pull a rabbit out of a hat again. Nothing up my sleeve. Presto.
Chris Grabenstein: Fanmail from some flounder.
Bianca Schulze: Now, we could have talked about so many of your books, but I want to talk about your newest books. So, we have your picture book, which is No Is All I Know. And then we have the latest edition of the Smartest Kid in the Universe series, which is Evil Genius. So, I’m going to start with No Is All I Know and how it showcases the power of saying yes. Will you talk us through what readers can expect from No Is All I Know?
Chris Grabenstein: First, incredible illustrations by Leo Espinosa. He is so good. He did my first picture book ever, which was called No More Naps, which I did mostly because here in New York City, in our apartment building, the folks across the hall that way had a girl named Devin. The folks over this way had a girl named Annalise. I said these kids are never going to hear their name in a book unless I write it. So, I came up with No More Naps about Annalise Devin McFleece, who will not take a nap.
And so, we did that, and Leo Espinosa illustrated those. And his illustrations were so terrific that I had another idea for No Is All I Know. So, we waited till he was available. He’s a very popular illustrator, and I think we waited two years. I think it took two years, but we said no, we’re going to wait for Leo. But that whole story started firstly—it’s sort of as a companion piece to No More Naps. As a kid and no more naps. No, I will not take a nap. No and then we started thinking, well, there’s kids who say no to everything.
I had a nephew once who would never, no matter what you cooked him for dinner, all he wanted was craft macaroni and cheese. The stuff in the blue box with that Cheetos kind of powder that you mix with margarine, I think. And we would just make that morning, noon, and night because he said no to everything. And so, you take that, and when you do improvisational comedy, there’s only one rule in improv, and that is to say yes. And because if we’re doing a scene together, you and I, we’ve never met before, but I know you know improv, and I know improv, I should be able to say, wow, it’s hot in here, and you pick up the ball. And if I say—
Bianca Schulze: I’m sweating.
Chris Grabenstein: Exactly. And then I say, well, I told you we shouldn’t climb into this dog’s mouth. And you’d say, well, we’re a canine dentist. How else are we going to fix this canine’s canine tooth? Come on, give me the microscope. Oh, I forgot to shrink it. So that’s how you do improv. You start with a yes and attitude. And so, I thought, this is a great kind of opportunity to teach this lesson because a lot of kids, when they’re in that toddler stage, say no to everything. Will you clean up your mess? We had a lot of fun with it.
Leo did some great pictures of will you get dressed? No. Bad choice to go running out the door without any clothes on. And then when this kid has been saying, no, I won’t go to sleep. No. All he has is macaroni and cheese. He gets a little groggy and a little sleepy when his bubbly cousin Jess comes over. And Jess, of course, always says yes. And the hero of our story goes, oh, wow. The little scene we just improvised was much better than if you said, no, it’s not hot in here. I’m kind of cold. And we’d be like, okay, well, we got nowhere. Exactly. So, by Jess saying yes, all of a sudden. And Leo did a great job showing where the imagination can go. And so, it’s really a story about the amazing power of saying yes.
Bianca Schulze: And Oliver learns that, and I love that. It is really a book about saying yes, but because it has that big, giant no on the cover, it attracts the attention of the kids. I’ve seen it firsthand. It’s like, OOH, that’s a big no. And then I read it out loud with my son, who isn’t a big— Like, he doesn’t say no to everything, but he certainly says no a fair amount. And he read it along. And every time we got to the no part, I would stop, and I would point to the word no, and he would read the word no. And he loved getting to just be free and say the word no, no as much as he could. And it was just so enjoyable.
And then for him to get that realization about how it is better to be, yes, I mean, it was so lovely to do as a read-aloud with my kid side by side, and I can just imagine story times in preschool classes and kindergarten classes and just how the kids will engage with it. So, I think it’s so fantastic.
Chris Grabenstein: I’ve read it out loud a few times in front of kids, and they do start picking up on that no pretty quickly.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah.
Chris Grabenstein: And even the endpapers that Leo did, where there’s one bright green yes in the sea of nos, and your eye immediately goes to the yes because the yes is probably—because of the colors he chose or whatever, but it stands out symbolically as the most powerful, more powerful word. It can get rid of all those nos with one bright green yes.
Bianca Schulze: Okay, here’s what I want to know next. Do you have a favorite double-page spread in the book?
Chris Grabenstein: Oh, in this book? Wow. There is one. In the first book we did, no more naps. But I love Leo’s work is so brilliant because you can go through it, like, ten times and see new things. I think this is probably my favorite page, but the one where he’s out playing with Jess, and across the pages, the words are very simple, where Jess said yes to everything. But first, we see some of the things that Oliver didn’t like to do before, like swing on a swing or eat ice cream. Now he’s meeting dogs. He’s splashing in puddles. He’s drawing. I was with Leo yesterday. He tells me the one where he’s drawing is his favorite scene because that’s what he loves to do, say yes to everything.
So, I think that’s my favorite because it just shows, like, wow. I mean, literally, you open the page, and this whole new world is open to you, and all you have to do is say yes.
Bianca Schulze: My favorite double-page spread, and it was my sons too. You and you sort of touched on this particular spread, is when Mom asks, are you ready to get dressed? And on one page, Mom’s holding up a shirt. And on the opposite page, Oliver Snow can be seen from behind, pun intended, running out the door naked. And I just found it so unexpectedly adorably funny. We loved that page because you just went expecting to see this little cutie patootie running out the door. And I loved that little bit of humor that was added there.
Chris Grabenstein: Yes, it gets a big laugh every time we reveal that page. So, it’s another again; it’s that turning the page, like, what’s on the other side of this curtain? It is a pie in the face. So, all the things we’ve been talking about.
Bianca Schulze: Well, when a young reader reaches the final page of No Is All I Know. What impact do you hope that this book has had on them?
Chris Grabenstein: That they might reconsider their options. I tell the story now when I was talking to some kids about it yesterday when I first moved to New York City, we went to a Chinese restaurant, and someone said, you got to try the cold noodles of sesame. So, what is it? Well, it’s like spaghetti, except it’s cold, and it’s got cucumbers and onions and peanut butter. I went, oh, man, I’m not going to eat that. And finally, they convinced me to do it. And now, every time I go out to a Chinese restaurant, guess what I order? Gold noodles with sesame sauce because it’s delicious, and I can even compare. This restaurant does it much better than this restaurant, and I’ve become something of an expert on it.
I came from a meat and potatoes kind of Irish, German, Greek kind of family where that’s all I ate was my dad. All he wanted was meat and potatoes and put some Heinz ketchup on it. So, to come to New York City, where you had all these opportunities to try things, and some of them you may not like, but if you say yes, all of a sudden, your world starts expanding. So, I hope that kids will say yes. Maybe I’ll try something besides macaroni and cheese for dinner tonight.
Bianca Schulze: Let’s take this moment to move on to The Smartest Kid in the Universe series. It’s a really fun series that appeals to even the more reluctant readers. And it sounds like you do write these books with the reluctant reader in mind. Is that true?
Chris Grabenstein: Yes, always. Constantly, as I’m writing about what I would have liked to have read when I was ten years old, instead of The Red Badge of Courage, which I vaguely remember, after we did SRA, we read Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage written, I think, in 1867. So, it was kind of contemporary stuff.
Bianca Schulze: I don’t want to give any spoilers away because we may have listeners that haven’t read book one and book two. So, I’m hoping that you will walk us through what readers can expect from Evil Genius, and maybe you need to give a little brief backstory without spoilers. I’m afraid if I share anything, I might give away a spoiler, so I’m going to let you sort of talk us through it.
Chris Grabenstein: Well, the story picks up with Jake McQuade, and we pretty quickly reestablished this in the new book. I always try to write my series book, so you don’t have to have read the first ones and know what’s going on. You can pick them up anywhere. Some writing conference I went to early in my career said, if you’re writing a series, write each book so they don’t have to have read the ones before it but will want to read those ones too. So, you give enough, but not too much. But Jake McQuade was an average kid, kind of a slacker. Went to school because that’s where his buddies were. He could play video games and played a little basketball, but he was kind of a lazy kid, an underachiever C average. That’s fine. Average is fine by him.
But one day, he is really hungry for a meal, and he goes to the hotel where his mother is the events coordinator because he knows everybody in the kitchen, and they will make him a free meal if Mom’s working late. But he has to wait. And in the room where he’s waiting, he finds a jar of jelly beans, which he does not know are actually ingestible knowledge capsules. He eats the whole jar because he’s hungry, and about half an hour later, he’s speaking Swahili. So, he immediately became the smartest kid in the universe. And that’s all established in the first two books.
But what is always fun with me because this is kind of my superhero book; it’s the way Jake McQuade ate jelly beans and the way that Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider to become Spider-Man. So, it’s a normal, ordinary kid who has something extraordinary happen to them and then suddenly has all these new responsibilities because he has all these new powers, but he’s always worried that the jelly beans are going to wear off or that there might be dark holes. He may not know everything.
And in this story, the inciting incident is Hazem Farooqi, the brilliant mad scientist. Very funny, too. I don’t know why he just cracks me and my editor up. Hazem Farooqi is, like, our favorite character in the books. He’s a very funny guy. He has a new jar of jelly beans because Jake wants to make sure I’ve got some backup in case these ones start wearing off and someone steals the jelly beans. So, the big question of this story is, what if this incredible superpower fell into the hands of someone who wanted to use them for evil purposes instead of good?
Because think about it, if you were the smartest kid in the universe, you could probably manipulate the stock market. You could do all sorts of incredible things to make yourself rich and powerful. Where Jake has chosen to save his school, to help his friends, and that sort of thing. So that’s where the evil genius, while he’s also battling with, are my own superpowers wearing off. Is there someone now who’s even more super? Maybe these new jelly beans were even better than the ones that I ate. Yeah, I hope I give away too much.
Bianca Schulze: No, I think that was perfect. And I’m glad I had you share it because I probably would have. I love the undercurrent of will, this ingestible knowledge that he has obtained, and this power. Will it just one day not show up? Especially when he needs it. And I love that undercurrent throughout because it keeps you just so curious.
The other thing that you said was you can just pick this book up and read it on its own. I love that I read from One, Two, and Three, but you definitely can just pick them up. And here’s why I think you’re really clever, Chris because it’s true. Everybody does a little recap in their subsequent books. So, if it’s book two, they recap book one, and if it’s book three, they’re recapping a little bit of one-two, and it can get a little bit boring and tedious. Sometimes I want to skip through those pages, but with your books, I don’t. I love that it’s just you give just enough so that the reader understands what’s going on, so they can just pick up book three or book two or read them in whatever order. So, I love that you just really are so concise, and the word that I want is not coming to me. But you just provided the right amount of information, and I don’t know how you figured out what to include.
Chris Grabenstein: Well, you don’t want to do an info dump. It’s interesting. One year I was judging a bunch of mysteries, and there were a lot of them that I don’t know if it was the editor’s style or something that had, like, a first chapter info dump. Like, here’s everything that happened in the last six books in this series, and now let’s start this story.
So, what you want to do again, is hit them with a pie in the face, start the story, get it going, and then drop in the information that they need to know to understand what’s going to happen next as your reader needs to know it. It’s almost like you’re given this information on a need-to-know basis. If I don’t really need to know everything that happened in the first couple of books, I just need to know what happened in those books that impact what’s about to happen in this book.
Bianca Schulze: Yes, absolutely. And then it sounded like you did some research on ingestible knowledge. Is this actually a real thing?
Chris Grabenstein: Yes, it is.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, my gosh.
Chris Grabenstein: Really scary because, again, I was on one of my walks, and I had a goofy idea. I don’t know why. I was like daydreaming—it might have been close to Halloween. I used to hate when those people would give me Smarties. I didn’t like Smarties. Those are those pastel-colored I like Smarties. I know a lot of kids when I say I hate Smarties. They’ll go; they’re my favorite. Good for you. But I never liked them. I always felt I was cheated. I could have had a little Snickers bar or Hershey’s bar or something, but I say, oh. And I remember I did a couple of commercials in London and maybe in Australia. We went to Australia. Do you have Smarties in Australia? The chocolate ones?
Bianca Schulze: So, yeah, it’s more like an M&M.
Chris Grabenstein: Exactly. So, I had those, and I never liked those Smarties as much as I liked M&Ms. So, Smarties were like my least favorite candies and of all kinds. But I don’t know why my brain went, oh, what if you could eat a Smarty, though, and become a Smarty? What if there was such a thing as ingestible knowledge? So, I had that what if because that’s most of my stories start with a what if. And I came home, and I think I just Googled ingestible knowledge. And all of a sudden, up came this Ted Talk by this eminent MIT professor, and I believe his real name is Blackbridge, and I call him Negroponte in the book because that’s Blackbridge as the translation.
And he had given Ted Talks for, like, 20 or 30 years, and in each one, he would predict something. And he said, well, someday there’s going to be you’ll be able to read newspapers and books on your telephone. And people laughed at him, and he said, well, someday there will be a device in your car that will help you navigate by linking with satellites positioned in space and people. That’s going to happen, buddy. So, long story short, everything this guy predicted at Ted Talks over the years came true. So, they asked him, well, what’s the next big thing? And he said, well, I may not be around to see it. It may take 20 or 30 years, but the next big thing is ingestible information, I think he called it. You’ll take a capsule, and you’ll know Shakespeare. You’ll take another capsule, and you’ll know how to speak French.
And the way it’ll work—I think I have a copy of this on my website—I think I have a little clip from his Ted Talk there. It’ll make its way through your bloodstream and find where to deposit this information in your brain. And so, I said, okay, that’s all I need because we are writing—this is semi-science fiction. You just have to have enough facts to make your fiction seem plausible. And I did more research about it and found out where knowledge comes from, and there are people working on this.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, my gosh. That’s just blowing my mind. I totally thought this was something, like, completely fictional, but this is crazy. I don’t even know what to say about that, Chris.
Chris Grabenstein: Somebody told me that those pills might have nanorobots. Like those nanobots? Those tiny little, microscopic—I don’t know.
Bianca Schulze: You’re blowing my mind.
Chris Grabenstein: So, eat your jelly beans, kids.
Bianca Schulze: Yes. And that was another thing. All I wanted to do was eat jelly beans. And in book two, all I wanted to do was eat marshmallows the whole time. So, thank you for that.
All right, well, can you share a highlight from Evil Genius?
Chris Grabenstein: Do you want me to read from it?
Bianca Schulze: Oh, that would be amazing. Would you do that?
Chris Grabenstein: Yeah, I can do that because I’m getting ready. We’re doing a little book party tonight, so I should be prepared. This is a little piece I heard yesterday, actually. The guy Kirby Hayborne, who does the audiobooks, did my audiobook for The Island of Dr. Libris, and he was perfect. And I found out he was an improvisational comic, so he kind of knew what I was playing. So he hears my voices completely. So, he’s much better than I am, is what I’ll tell you. So, this is from chapters 13 and 14. When those jelly beans go missing, Jake gets a phone call on his cell at school, and the principal says, you’ve got to go outside to take that; Jake hustles out of the building and taps the answer icon on his spring. [Chris reads from Evil Genius.]
Bianca Schulze: I love it. And the way you do his voice is so fun. Now, I don’t know if this is a trick or of the trade, but I noticed when you are holding the book that you have different lines highlighted. Is that to sort of a little code for yourself for when you’re reading when to switch?
Chris Grabenstein: Bingo.Yes. That’s an old trick that my wife does when she marks up her scripts when she’s doing an audiobook. But it’s just like it’s a quick visual cue, like someone else is talking here, so you don’t get lost in the pages.
Bianca Schulze: That’s genius. Well, I love it when authors read from their own books, so I feel privileged to have just experienced that. So, thank you. I also saw that Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library will release as a full-color graphic novel on November 7 of this year, which is very exciting. I’m a big graphic novel fan, like so many kids out there. So, what can you tell us about that?
Chris Grabenstein: Well, that’s an interesting process. We saw that Stuart Gibbs, a buddy of mine, did Spy School as a graphic novel. And I said to my editor, maybe we should jump on this graphic novel bandwagon because the kids really love them. And she said, well, will you adapt it? I said, oh, no, I couldn’t do that. No, I couldn’t do that because I’d done a couple of the Jackie Ha-Ha books that I did with James Patterson were turned into graphic novels, and they hired someone to adapt it. They hired someone to illustrate it. But then I said, no, wait a minute. I spent 20 years doing TV commercials, and we did storyboards, and storyboards are just very short graphic novels.
And wait a minute; I know the parts. Whoever does this is going to have to cut some chunks out because it’s 256 pages. Not everything is as visually strong as other things. And I know the parts that no one has ever written to me and said they loved. I know all the lines people love because I’ve gotten the book’s been out for ten years, so I’ve gotten thousands of emails and read thousands of reviews. And I know the parts people love and the parts that no one ever mentioned. That little trip to the Immigration Hall of Fame. Nice of you to put that in there. And there’s another, like a challenge that no one ever said was their favorite part, so I knew what parts to cut. I will do it.
It was almost like writing a screenplay, in which I have a little experience, and I studied a lot of screenplay writing when I was in those years, trying to learn everything I could to transition from writing advertising to writing whatever I might write next. So, I took a lot of screenplay writing classes, and so I wrote the graphic novel as a screenplay. And I have a great editor, Shayna Corey, who has been my editor on like a dozen, two dozen books. And we’ve done so many books together, but she’s gotten so good at graphic novels that they’ve now promoted her to the head of graphic novels. So, I had her guiding hand in all this because she knows graphic novels backwards and forwards.
And so, we went back and forth, and we tightened things up because that’s where you got to do a lot of tightening. And it was just like when we did TV commercials where you’d write this really funny bubble of dialogue, and then you go, wait a minute, this is a 32nd commercial. That dialogue is going to take 7 seconds, and I really need 4 seconds down here. So how can I trim this dialogue down? Still, keep it funny? So, all those old muscles, all those advertising muscles, were brought back, and then, boy, they were so great. They got Douglas Holgate, who does The Last Kids on Earth series, does all the illustrations on those to do them. He’s in Australia. I don’t know if you know him. I don’t know if all you Australians—
Bianca Schulze: No, we don’t.
Chris Grabenstein: But he’s down in Australia, and he took it on, and it’s beautiful. I’ve seen the whole thing, and it’s going to be incredible. They’ve actually done a few advanced reader copies, but they’re black and white, and now on NetGalley, they do have the full-color one. So, it’s going to be incredible.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. And on the topic of Mr. Lemoncello, you do this wonderful thing where you kind of plant little seeds from Lemoncello within The Smartest Kid in the Universe series. And I love that little sort of tie-in, and that’s obviously a conscious thing that you’re doing there.
Chris Grabenstein: Yes, it goes back to when I was a kid; there were two TV shows, those Green Acres and Petticoat Junction, and every once in a while, core characters from one would show up in the other. And I don’t know, as a kid, I just love that. We just worked on Mr. Lemoncello’s fantabulous finale, which is going to be the last book in the series. I think it’s going to come out next year. I just finished my first draft. We’re going back and forth. But in that one, I’m having loads of fun because characters from The Smartest Kid in the Universe, characters from my Welcome to Wonderland series, and The Island of Dr. Libris all of them are throwing them all in. It’s like, this is going to be our one big gumbo of all the characters from all the different books.
Bianca Schulze: I love it. Well, I had meant to ask you this question before I jumped into Lemoncello. So, I want to know, what impact do you hope The Smartest Kid in the Universe series has on its readers?
Chris Grabenstein: I hope I put a little quote in the front of this book in the dedication, and my mother didn’t say it. I found this quote from someone else. But these were kind of what she thought because my mother passed away last January. So, this is like the first book that’s coming out that she’s not around to see, which was my dad died, unfortunately, before any of my books came out. So, this book is dedicated in memory of my mom. And I put a little quote in there that says being gifted doesn’t mean you’ve been given something. It means you have something to give.
And when I was a kid, for whatever reason, I don’t know, genetics or whatever, my brothers, my four brothers and I, we were all like, super smart. Like, school came very easily to us. And my brother Jeff is the smartest one of all of us. He has, like, that kind of he could skip, like, grades and gone right to college. He could have been Doogie Howser. He was so smart. But my mother always instilled in us that if you have these gifts and these talents, you don’t, like, lord it over anybody. You don’t use it to just help yourself. But we’re all here to help other people.
And so, I hope that when kids read this, they’ll say, I want to be like Jake. I want to use whatever talents I have to help other people, to help my friends, to help my family, and to help my school. I don’t want to become just a greedy grubber like the bad, like the evil genius in the book. It’s making me choke up a little bit thinking about my mom and the kind of values that she instilled in us when we were kids.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, I’m really glad that you brought that up because when I read the book, I loved reading the dedications, and I was going to ask you about it, but I felt like maybe I wouldn’t. And so, I’m just glad that you did bring it up. I think that’s special. I’m sorry to hear about your mom. And just overall, that message that you just described shines through so well.
Chris Grabenstein: It’s funny when I worked for Jim Henson. I only got to meet him once. I got to work with Michael Frith, who was one of his geniuses and stuff. But I went to one meeting, and we presented our script. It was just like penguins doing something silly in the basement. And he said, what lesson are you teaching? Because kids are going to take away a lesson from this script whether you put one in or not. So, make sure you have one that you want the kids to take away. And so that’s always stuck with me, too. So, what do I want kids to take away from this? Because when you’re writing for kids, it’s kind of valuable. What you’re doing is valuable. You don’t want to be putting bad thoughts into kids’ heads.
So, I’m hopefully—and at the same time, you don’t want to be didactic. And, like, this is what you should learn from this young man. You want them to absorb a lesson almost without knowing that they’re absorbing something.
Bianca Schulze: Yes. Well, your books definitely do that. So, Chris, this has been so much fun. If I was to choose one takeaway for listeners today, I’m going to go with the power of saying yes, and that is because I want listeners to say yes to grabbing copies of No Is All I Know, The Smartest Kid in the Universe, Evil Genius, and every other book that you’ve ever published. So, thank you for sharing your wisdom, wit, and wonderful thoughts on writing and stealing words directly from James Patterson. And I hope that Mr. Patterson does not mind. Chris, you just might be the smartest writer for kids in the universe. So, thank you for being on the show today. I think you’re amazing.
Chris Grabenstein: Oh, thank you. So sweet of you. Thank you so much. This is a lovely discussion.
About the Books
Publisher’s Book Summary: Introducing a story about the AMAZING power of YES! This universally relatable picture book about toddlerhood from the New York Times bestselling team behind No More Naps! will elicit laughs from kids and their grown-ups everywhere!
Oliver McSnow ONLY says NO. He says NO so much that his NO starts to grow. And grow and GROW…until that NO is out of control! No baths. No brushing teeth. No cleaning up. No bedtime! Morning, noon, and night—it’s just NO, NO, NOOOOOOOOOO!
But then Oliver’s cousin visits. Jess loves the word YES. YES to friends! YES to food. YES to fun! YES, YES, YES, YES, YESSSSS! And suddenly, Oliver’s world gets opened up in a most wonderful way!
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Publisher’s Book Synopsis: Meet middle schooler Jake McQuade. Jake became the smartest kid in the universe when he accidentally ate a jarful of ingestible knowledge jelly beans. But what happens when those jelly beans fall into the wrong hands?!
Readers who enjoy the action of the Last Kids on Earth books will love this fast-paced, spy-packed series that’s a “rollicking good time” (New York Times) by the bestselling author of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library!
Jake McQuade’s the smartest kid in the universe—or at least he was. But just as his training with the secret agency known as the Consortium is about to start, Jake’s jelly beans go missing! And to make matters worse, they (and Jake’s genius!) might be wearing off right when he needs his smarts most!
Jake needs to solve this mystery fast. Who stole the jelly beans and why? Can Jake figure out what’s going on, recover the missing jelly beans, and stop a high-tech heist before it’s too late?!
From top-secret hideouts to New York City penthouse apartments to the Statue of Liberty in the middle of the night, get ready to go on a whirlwind, wild-ride adventure filled with supervillains and spies, puzzles and pirates, codes and drones, and much, much more—and don’t miss the first two books in the series—Smartest Kid in the Universe and Genius Camp!
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You can visit Chris Grabenstein at ChrisGrabenstein.com.
No More Naps, by Chris Grabenstein and Leo Espinosa
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library: The Graphic Novel, by Chris Grabenstein and Douglas Holgate
The Jackie Ha-Ha series, by Chris Grabenstein and James Patterson
Welcome to Wonderland series, by Chris Grabenstein
- Chris Grabenstein’s time in a top New York City improvisational comedy troupe performing with Bruce Willis and Robin Williams.
- Writing for Jim Henson’s Muppets, co-writing the movie The Christmas Gift (starring John Denver), and working in advertising with James Patterson.
- The art of never being boring when writing for kids.
- Chris’s tip for creativity and finding ideas.
- The picture book No Is All I Know.
- The latest book on the Smartest Kid in the Universe series: Evil Genius.
- The graphic novel edition of Mr. Lemoncello’s Library.
Thank you for listening to the Growing Readers Podcast episode: Chris Grabenstein on Writing Books for Kids. For the latest episodes from The Growing Readers Podcast, Follow Now on Spotify. For similar books and articles, you can check out all of our content tagged with Chris Grabenstein, Middle Grade Books, Picture Book, and Writing Tips.