December 12

Ambushed at Ten: The Book I Can’t Forget by Ben Guterson

My fifth-grade teacher—kindly Miss Black, who’d taught my oldest brother a decade before me and who, not long after I was her student, retired from a lifetime of teaching—settled our class daily by reading to us after lunch.  I’d like to claim I recall the many books she shared that year. But only one, The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs, has stayed in my memory—has, in fact, remained fixed in my memory like a first crush: I’m devoted to the story, find in it much of what I love about children’s literature.

A few details.  The House with a Clock in its Walls came out in 1973, was Bellairs’ first novel for young readers (it remains his most popular), and featured a dozen shadowy illustrations by eventual Goth favorite Edward Gorey.  Best of all, the house in the title was based on an actual residence in Bellairs’ hometown of Marshall, Michigan—a creepy mansion named, alluringly, the Jeremiah Cronin House.  “In my imagination,” Bellairs once wrote, when asked from where his inspiration to author children’s books arose, “I repeatedly walk up and down the streets of the beautiful Michigan town where I grew up. It is full of Victorian mansions and history, and it would work on the creative mind of any kid.”

Bellairs’ book worked on the mind of this kid from its first page: ten-year-old Lewis Barnavelt, recently orphaned, prayer-reciting, anxious about his future in general and his prospects for making friends in particular, is on a solo bus-ride to Marshall-esque New Zebedee to live with his Uncle Jonathan.  Minutes after they meet, the distractible uncle startles oddly at the sound of the town’s tolling bell, and—whoosh!—the eerie engine of the plot begins ticking.  The mansion where Jonathan lives rises into view and is, to the amazement of now-resident Lewis, entered; inside, a visiting neighbor is discovered pressing an ear to the living-room wall as if to hear whispers within; Jonathan seems to have a way with playing-cards; and, most tantalizing of all, Lewis spies his uncle tip-toeing through the mansion’s dim corridors after midnight and listening worriedly at points along the walls.  What is going on?  And then we proceed to Chapter Two.

As Miss Black’s reading clipped forward and the book got better and better, Bellairs’ hooks sunk deeply into me—subsequent readings have made me certain I’m recalling my initial thrill rightly.  To the ten-year-old I was, Lewis Barnavelt’s arrival at his uncle’s house initiated the sorts of adventures I wished for myself: encounters with magic and the people who could work it; discoveries of clues and puzzles and mysterious books; evasions of danger; and—although I likely didn’t recognize it at the time–the company of gentle grown-ups one leap beyond my parents.  The House with a Clock in its Walls accomplished all that I feel a book ought to provide a young reader—it gestured toward possibilities of imagination and friendship while offering excitement that was both unforced and generous.  Even more, it provided me with a template for storytelling that I’ve carried ever since and for which I remain grateful.  I absolutely had The House with a Clock in its Walls in mind while I worked on my book, Winterhouse, and there are very deliberate echoes of my childhood favorite in my story.  I owe the book and John Bellairs, who passed away in 1991, much gratitude for inspiring me years ago.

I’ve recently learned there is a movie in the works.  I hope it does justice to a great story, but I’m wary.  The book conjured enough magic for me back in fifth grade.

Ben Guterson was born and raised in Seattle. Before working at Microsoft as a Program Manager, Ben spent a decade teaching public school on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico and in rural Colorado. He has written features and book reviews for newspapers, magazines, and websites, as well as a nature-travel guide to the Southwest. Ben and his family live in the foothills of the Cascades east of Seattle. Winterhouse is his first book.


An enchanting urban fantasy middle-grade debut―the first book in a trilogy―set in a magical hotel full of secrets.

Orphan Elizabeth Somers’s malevolent aunt and uncle ship her off to the ominous Winterhouse Hotel, owned by the peculiar Norbridge Falls. Upon arrival, Elizabeth quickly discovers that Winterhouse has many charms―most notably its massive library. It’s not long before she locates a magical book of puzzles that will unlock a mystery involving Norbridge and his sinister family. But the deeper she delves into the hotel’s secrets, the more Elizabeth starts to realize that she is somehow connected to Winterhouse. As fate would have it, Elizabeth is the only person who can break the hotel’s curse and solve the mystery. But will it be at the cost of losing the people she has come to care for, and even Winterhouse itself?

Mystery, adventure, and beautiful writing combine in this exciting debut richly set in a hotel full of secrets.

Check out never-before-seen interior art for Winterhouse below!