In The Next Page, Erin Newcomb reads stuff she likes and reflects on things eternal and earthly in the popular literature of our time.

I borrowed a copy of Chris Grabenstein’s Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library when I realized it was the precursor to Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics. Books about libraries? Yes, please. Since I read the series in reverse, I wanted to find out the backstory, but while I didn’t love either of these books, I liked the first installment even less than the second. There’s a high cheesiness factor to both books, an odd mixture of nostalgia and technological dreams that doesn’t quite mesh. This is particularly true of the twelve-year-old protagonists (Team Kyle!) who say “yo” and “bro” and bump their chests an awful lot for a bunch of middle-schoolers with uncanny knowledge of trivia and the Dewey Decimal System.

As a bibliophile, my loyalty is not to indoctrinating others with my narrow vision of good books, but to reading.

The characters are one-dimensional and the plot is contrived. The literary references littered throughout the text (particularly in master gamemaker Luigi Lemoncello’s speeches) don’t elevate the tone or content. My biggest frustration, though, is how derivative the stories are. There’s little that isn’t a worse version of Willy Wonka or a game that already exists. There’s not a lot that’s new or fresh here, and while balloons might be enough for Kyle Keeley and Mr. Lemoncello, they aren’t enough for me. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been more of a Library of Congress classification system kind of girl.

But here’s why I think the series might be worth looking at anyway.

Released just over a month ago, Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics currently ranks as the #1 New Release for Amazon’s “Censorship & Politics.” It’s a middle-grade novel that tackles major issues of freedom of speech, and while Chris Grabenstein and his characters seem to have a very different ideas about libraries and reading than I do, I can’t help but admire his devotion to the freedom to read.

As I worked through the newer release, I found myself identifying with one of the antagonists, a Miss Marjory Muldauer. She intimidates the other contestants with her encyclopedic knowledge and her bullying; I don’t think I happen to share either of those characteristics. But I kept getting the impression that Marjory and I like the same sorts of libraries—and that those libraries look nothing like the ones created by Grabenstein and his titular hero.

At the end of the Olympics, the gamemaker and Marjory reconcile, with Mr. Lemoncello explaining:

“I told you it was a quest for champions. And it was. I was looking for library lovers willing to stand up and fight for what’s right, no matter the cost or personal sacrifice.” He paused and looked directly at Marjory. “Even if they did not agree with my way of doing things.”

“I’m sorry I took that book,” said Marjory.

“We figured somebody would once Mr. Peckleman started passing out his ‘Go to College Free’ cards. It was a test. To see if you, or anyone else, were here for the wrong reasons. I’m overjoyed that, in the end, you fought so hard to save these books, because believe it or not, Marjory, I, too, love libraries qua libraries. I just don’t like saying ‘qua.’ It makes me sound like a duck.”

Everyone, including Marjory, laughed.

Rightness, according to Lemoncello, means no censorship of library materials. Marjory and the other contestants in the Library Olympics risk their college scholarships in order to save Flora and Ulysses from a squirrel-hating maniac’s bonfire. For the record, I didn’t love that book either, but I’m not a fan of book-burning regardless of my personal feelings for the book. What I appreciate about this passage, and what saved this book for me, is the recognition that we can hold so strongly to such different viewpoints and still work toward a common good. Marjory and Mr. Lemoncello don’t particularly like each other at the end of the story, yet they respect each other and come to understand each other a little better.

My definition of “libraries qua libraries” matches Marjory Muldauer’s much more closely than it does Mr. Lemoncello’s; I would say his vision of libraries matches his vision of party foods a little too closely—heavy on the sugar and artificial flavors and low on nutrition and substance. Metaphorically speaking, at least. And yes, I get it that I sound super-boring and several decades older than I actually am. I am comfortable with all that. Unlike Kyle Keeley, I don’t need balloons. I don’t like balloons, either.

It’s particularly interesting for me to be reviewing this book from this perspective because my church is going through some significant transformations. I hear lots of conversations about the vision for this church, which reflect broader cultural conversations about the vision for the church. It would be so easy to slip into debates about “church qua church.” I know my ideal vision of church includes an organ and incense and weekly communion (with wine and real bread), among other attributes of highly-liturgical services. I’m wired to see God in those aesthetic details, but that doesn’t describe the church my family attends. And the truth is, my ideal vision of church also includes caring, devoted believers who demonstrate hospitality and sacrificial service and love. My church does those really well, and I’d say, ultimately, those are the greater things.

I know, too, that some readers will take issue with my descriptions in the previous paragraph. My “church qua church” is not going to match everyone’s. And that’s where Grabenstein’s book hit me—that I could disagree with and dislike his version of the perfect library as much as I wanted. That doesn’t change the reality that a lot of readers like the book. As a bibliophile, my loyalty is not to indoctrinating others with my narrow vision of good books (but I’ll tell you my opinion if you ask…) but to reading. As a Christian, my loyalty is not to forcing my own version of the gospel or worship onto my fellow believers, but to the church as the body of Christ.

What Marjory and Mr. Lemoncello achieve is a difficult balance—disagreement in many of the details and concession over the essentials. Churches disintegrate over these kinds of debates. I still don’t appreciate the sneaky characterization of Marjory or (especially in the scene I excerpted) the low-quality imitation of Willy Wonka, but I can chalk these up to matters of perspective. You say praise band? I say choir. You say grape juice. I say wine. We disagree. We might dislike each other’s ideas. We may even dislike each other. But where Mr. Lemoncello and Marjory look past their disagreements to save the books, Christ asks us to look past many of our disagreements to glorify Him. And as much as I love books, there is no higher, more essential calling than serving Christ.