Parents' Guide to


By Carrie R. Wheadon, Common Sense Media Reviewer

age 9+

Perfectly set bookish mystery with some spooky stuff.

Book Ben Guterson Mystery 2018
Winterhouse Poster Image

A Lot or a Little?

What you will—and won't—find in this book.

Community Reviews

age 9+

Based on 3 parent reviews

age 9+

Lacks positive messages and themes

This is a ghost story. It moves slowly—very slowly at first—and picks up the pace toward the end, culminating in some grisly scenes with a corpse-ghost. The book’s best feature is the setting: an old hotel that serves as a winter vacation spot, which the author describes well. The main character, a girl named Elizabeth, shows perseverance despite a difficult home life and malevolent actors working against her. But her tenacity borders on obsession, and even possession, given the ghostly theme. These and other elements would make it hard for a young reader to discern whether the protagonist's decisions are right or wrong. And while Elizabeth is following her curiosity and obsession with the hotel and its patrons, she consistently ignores the needs of her friend, a boy about her age, who repeatedly asks her not to get involved, for fear of his safety. She is not a good friend to him, although this might come through muddled for young readers as well. Further, I was a little bored for the first half of the book and forced myself to keep reading. I don’t need a lot of action as long as there’s good writing, but this book falls short in that department as well. Many details feel like filler to get the book to the next plot-advancing event. (To paraphrase an example: “She went to the dining room for breakfast, and then she stopped by the front desk, and then went back to her room to change into her bathing suit. Then she headed to the pool. On her way, she ran into her friend…” Details like these are given frequently, even when they are not relevant, interesting, or character-developing.) I did not suggest this book to my nine-year-old, as I didn't feel it had much to offer.
age 10+

Same old gender tropes

Writing a book is maddening, soul-churning work so I don’t give two stars lightly. That said, my review of Winterhouse has little to do with the writing and more with its troubling gender messages. Basic premise: a young word-obsessed girl, Elizabeth, is sent to a fancy hotel by herself where she uncovers dark secrets about her family. First, the good: My daughter and I enjoyed how the narrative was cleverly framed by word puzzles, and it is extremely suspenseful. It sends the message to “choose the good.” But this is not exactly good. The bad: What this simple, and by all appearances, positive message of choosing good really says to kids is: choose the old patriarchy because only it represents the good. Meanwhile the bad/villain is symbolized by a crazy old woman for whom the reader is not to have a shred of empathy. She is evil to the core. No nuance here. I firmly believe kids a) take away the essence of a book through symbols and emotion instead of through overt, hammered-home behavioral messages; b) that kids can handle much more nuance than is dished up in most middle-grade books. Alas, Winterhouse is a world of good and bad with no in between. This alone wouldn't be such a problem if the good in this story weren't symbolically male while bad equals female. The patriarch, Norbridge, is a benevolent older man who owns and runs the fabulous hotel/world of this story. He fits the old man-savior trope by possessing apparently unlimited finances inherited through the generations (no doubt acquired through some noble lineage which the reader is supposed to admire and yet anyone with a basic understanding of history knows that ancestral wealth was rarely acquired without the use of violent force and/or oppression). Norbridge’s character, as is typical of most patriarchal stereotypes, is omniscient, omnipotent, yet utterly blameless. The crazy old woman, on the other hand, had been cast out of the family for what sounded to me like mental illness and generally being “disagreeable” (perhaps for enduring centuries of violence and oppression?). Further, it is time to take a closer look at authors who use young, female protagonists to represent female power. A pre-adolescent girl does not accurately represent femininity. Such girl characters are no more than infantilized versions of the female. Why? Because they are not fully grown women. In Winterhouse no grown woman character is completely fleshed out the way the main male character is. This is a problem in that it renders grown women in general as dimensionless. Meaning, they can be either good – as in Elizabeth’s mother who is automatically good because she is dead; and the hotel librarian, a house-bound, mammy-stereotype, who speaks in dry aphorisms, and whose sole purpose is to serve Norbridge/the patriarch. Or they can be bad, as characterized by the other two grown women in the story who are unloving, old, ugly, conniving, manipulative, smelly, and irreparably damaged. Before humans communicated through the written word they believed that stories didn’t just reflect the world but created the future. If this is true then stories such as Winterhouse -- in which the only good grownup women are either dead or disposable, and women who use their own voices to speak out or act crazy are evil to the bone – potentially generate more of the same old male-dominant outlook. But not all hope is lost. To teachers and parents who care what their kids read, research shows that while kids tune in quickly to stereotypes, they greatly benefit from conversations with adults who are willing to discuss and deconstruct gender tropes in stories and in actual life.

Is It Any Good?

Our review:
Parents say (3):
Kids say (6):

With the perfect setting of a snow-covered, remote luxury hotel, this is one of those books you want to jump into and never leave, even when spooky stuff starts going down. It's easy to dream about your days at Winterhouse, helping with a giant puzzle, eating lots of homemade candy, going to lectures on famous explorers, skiing around a frozen lake. And if you're really curious, like Elizabeth, you can stay busy exploring the dramatic family history that goes with the place. It's a special book that grounds the reader so well in the environment and makes you want to explore as much as the characters do. First-time author Ben Guterson really gets this right.

Guterson also builds in a whole lot of mystery in one story, making you wonder which direction you'll eventually be led. With the focus on code-breaking, some creepy booksellers, and word puzzles early on, the scary place the story ends up will probably surprise you. It's not a bad place, just a strange shift in tone. It quickly shifts back, however, to a sweeter note at the story's end. New ties are formed and promises are made to bring the whole gang back together. Escapist readers are sure to be excited about two more trips to Winterhouse.

Book Details

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