Below is an article that ran in the July 2018 Signal Mountain Mirror about Chris, his life on Signal Mountain and his career.
Famous Author Visits His Elementary School Alma Mater
by Melissa Barrett
To be a comedian or a writer – that was the eighth grade dream of Chris Grabenstein.
Turns out he did both.
And his career as a best-selling children’s author allows him to include childhood experiences on Signal Mountain in his rollicking tales of adventure and mystery.
His father, a chemical engineer at Dupont, moved the family from New York to a house on Glamis Circle on his 10th birthday in September 1965. Grabenstein and his four brothers had fun playing in woods across the street and making boats to sail on a little pond. He performed with the Signal Mountain Playhouse, which was quite natural considering he was often creating imaginary stories in his head and putting on plays at his home.
Probably the most significant episode during his Signal Mountain years though was when Grabenstein won his first writing award. That happened when he was a fifth grader at Wilkes T. Thrasher Elementary School. The Signal Mountain Lions Club presented him with a medal for his citizenship essay.
Since then, Grabenstein has racked up several writing awards for both adult and young adult books. He is arguably most well known for “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library,” which is among the more than 50 popular children’s books he’s written, either by himself or in collaboration with James Patterson, such as the “I, Funny” or “Treasure Hunter” series.
Yes, that James Patterson.
After graduating from Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga, Grabenstein went to New York to do improv comedy, and he once shared a stage with Bruce Willis and also worked with Robin Williams. Then, in 1984, he answered an ad in The New York Times that landed him a job at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, where Patterson was both creative director and his boss. He wrote ads and jingles for many products, met Jim Henson and wrote for “The Muppets,” and he even worked as a screenwriter for “The Christmas Gift,” a 1986 movie starring John Denver.
It was fun work, but Grabenstein quit his advertising job in 2001 to focus on writing a book.
He spent one year writing and then submitted his first book to publishers, only to have it rejected. He did the same a second time with same results. He finally succeeded with his third book, “Tilt A Whirl,” which was the first in an adult mystery series and won an award.
Grabenstein used that experience when he visited with current students at his former elementary school.
“Fall down seven times, get up the eighth time,” he told them at an assembly in May. “I succeeded only because I refused to take ‘No’ for an answer.”
Grabenstein told members of Thrasher’s Breakfast Book Club that much of his successful writing career “had to do with teachers right here on Signal Mountain.”
At the assembly, he showed a paper where a Signal Mountain Junior High School seventh grade teacher (Mrs. Garrett) wrote a note telling him, “You will make your living as a writer some day.”
He advised Thrasher’s young aspiring writers to both “read a lot and write a lot.”
One thing Grabenstein emphasized to students was, “Don’t write a novel. Write a story between 2,000 and 3,000 words … and kind of fool your readers.”
Remember, he said, “You’ve always got to have a good guy and a bad guy in your story. Your protagonist has gotta go up against an antagonist.”
Another tip was to “make sure your characters are completely different by the end of the story.”
Grabenstein said he is always looking around for ideas of new characters, but admitted in a Q&A with this reporter that “one of the bullies who picked on me when I was a student at Thrasher has appeared in numerous books.”
Taking a cue from his improv days, Grabenstein asked students at Thrasher’s assembly for various words and phrases and then illustrated how to blend them into sentences and then a short story. Students were delighted with the author’s comedic, interactive presentation that entertained as well as educated.
“Everything a writer does starts with words,” he said. “The first job of any writer is getting the reader to keep reading … The first sentence hooks you and pulls you in.”
Grabenstein said, “Every story starts with a ‘what if’ followed by an ‘and then’ and another ‘and then.’ You get the general idea. If you want to write and tell a story, you start with ‘What if’ and watch the ripples go out from that one idea.
“Keep your eyes open and look around for something a little bit out of the ordinary, something a little different,” he told a student who asked where he got ideas.
Grabenstein grew up watching episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and said those were good for structure because each episode includes a beginning, a middle, and an end … with a twist.”
He suggested budding authors create a story map that includes four steps: “Oh;” followed by an “Uh Oh;” then, an “Oh No!”; until finally you provide an “Ohhhh,” where everything is resolved at the end.
Grabenstein celebrated the book birthday of “Sandapalooza Shake-Up,” the third book in his humorous “Welcome to Wonderland” series, at Thrasher, where he has fun memories of playing with Super Balls in the halls before Christmas, performing talent shows on stage, being terrible at kickball, and listening to 45 rpm records on a classroom record player during recess.
Thrasher librarian Pam Johnston arranged the visit as a reward to students for reading nearly 2 million minutes this year. Grabenstein read the first chapter of his new book at assembly and signed pre-ordered copies of the book all day.
Members of Thrasher’s book club enjoyed breakfast with the author, while members of Mrs. Garvich’s class shared lunch with him as reward for being the top fifth grade reading class.
A splendid spread of food and beverages, including “Pond Scum Punch,” was provided by Thrasher parents. Johnston also provided some Krispy Kreme donuts (the author remembers selling them to raise funds) and the local Southern Star staff baked a cake, complete with caramel icing and brown sugar sand castles, to commemorate the new book’s birthday.
The University of Tennessee added a special touch. UTK’s Dean of Communications Michael Wirth came to Thrasher to notify Grabenstein he is a 2018 Distinguished Alumni recipient and showed him the award he will receive at an awards banquet this fall.
During his short visit back to Signal Mountain, Grabenstein also enjoyed stopping by the Signal Mountain Pharmacy, where he used to buy comic books. “Alas, no more spinning comic book rack,” he opined on his Facebook page.
“Then I visited the Signal Mountain Library, which was just being built when I was leaving for college,” he wrote. “It is at the top of what my brothers and I called water tank hill, the steepest hill we had to climb on our bikes to get home.”
Grabenstein is spending the summer promoting his new book across the country, but will return to our area in July for a high school reunion at Notre Dame. During that trip, he will visit the Signal Mountain Library at 2 p.m. on July 26 for a talk and book signing.
This fall, Grabenstein and Patterson will introduce a new book and series centered on “Max Einstein, the Genius Experiment,” that centers on a young female genius. Also, a new boxed set of the Lemoncello books will be introduced just in time for the holidays.
Be sure to check out his website. And, the author is very responsive to messages from fans on his Facebook page.