Some of Ben Guterson’s most treasured childhood memories center around two now-defunct grand old department stores in downtown Seattle: Frederick & Nelson and The Bon Marché. They “were absolutely places of magic for me,” the author reminisces in a call from his home in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains.
“At Christmastime, I would go to the second floor and take the escalator down to the first floor. . . . [A]ll the decorations, the trees, the glitter, the tinsel, the displays, the lights, the color, everything slowly revealed itself to me and I’d think I was descending into the heart of winter wonderland,” he says. “I fell in love with department stores because of that.”
Guterson’s appreciation of those bygone commerce centers and cultural touchstones is on marvelously magical display in The World-Famous Nine, his inventive, exciting middle grade mystery-adventure novel set in the storied Number Nine Plaza department store (aka “The Nine”).
The Nine is a blend of cleverly cultivated experiences and artfully arranged merchandise all under one roof. Unlike other department stores, that roof is 19 stories in the air and has an enormous Ferris wheel on top of it. The luxurious floors below contain a monorail, a display with a real iceberg and real penguins, an art gallery, rotating restaurants and more.
On the very first page of The World-Famous Nine, 11-year-old Zander Olinga rides an escalator down to the store’s main floor and into an astonishing new chapter of his life. What’s meant to be a fun five-week visit with his glamorous grandmother Zina Winebee, who owns The Nine, while his professor parents go on a research trip, soon turns into something much more thrilling and dangerous. Zander must undertake an urgent quest to unravel long-held family secrets by solving peculiar puzzles and tracking down a lost object that will protect The Nine and everyone in it from a terrible fate.
That’s a tall order for a kid, to say the least, but Zander’s new friend Natasha Novikov is confident the two of them can figure things out. He’s afraid of heights but great at solving puzzles, and she knows the store inside and out. Besides, one of Zander’s hobbies is creating mandalas, which are vital to their mission, if the ten-foot-tall sandstone boulder with “carved elaborate circular patterns” that has pride of place in The Nine is any indication. (Hint: it is.)
Guterson’s own affinity for mandalas—he draws them daily—not only inspired key elements of the complex mystery in The World-Famous Nine but also the artwork that appears within. Kristina Kister’s wonderful illustrations immerse readers in the dazzling world and unique denizens of The Nine, and Guterson’s impressively detailed mandalas grace the book’s pages as well. “I highly recommend it,” Guterson says about drawing mandalas. “It’s a really cool, creative and relaxing thing to do. I don’t want to sound too new-agey here, but . . . to engage in a creative act that’s not verbal or word-oriented in any way, I have found that to be extremely helpful.”
While the mandalas will be new to Guterson’s fans, The World-Famous Nine’s plethora of puzzles and wordplay will feel happily familiar to readers who delighted in the code-cracking, riddle-solving aspects of his previous books: the Winterhouse trilogy (Winterhouse, the first in the series and Guterson’s debut, was an Edgar Award and Agatha Award finalist) and The Einsteins of Vista Point.
Although the author now has multiple mysteries under his writerly belt, he still finds it challenging to strike just the right balance: “You don’t want to make the mystery or the solving of clues so easy that kids can spot it right away and then get frustrated with your hero, like, ‘Why is that main character so dumb when I figured it out already?’” But, he says, “You also don’t want to make it so hard that, when it’s revealed, someone says, ‘No one ever really could’ve figured that out!’”
“I think when you’re that age and you discover a book or an author that you love, it can just completely solidify a love of reading.”
Guterson has found that his true satisfaction and joy is writing for middle grade readers. In fact, he’s got even more books on the way: The World-Famous Nine is the first in a series, with its sequel, The Hidden Workshop of Javier Preston forthcoming. After all, he says, “I think when you’re that age and you discover a book or an author that you love, it can just completely solidify a love of reading. I find it really exciting to think that maybe my books . . . could do for a kid what the books I love did for me when I was that age.”
Photo of Ben Guterson by Harvey Photography.