Over many years and on several occasions, I’ve been fortunate to visit a spectacular overlook—not merely charming but, I feel, charmed—high above the Columbia River on the Oregon border. The spot is called Crown Point, and aside from the wondrous views in three directions, it’s notable for a four-story stone tower that commands the bluff like some distant outpost in a Wes Anderson film. Known as Vista House, the gray-skinned and green-capped stone building—constructed as a rest-stop—remains as lovely today as it was when it was dedicated back in 1918.
Crown Point draws plenty of sightseers, particularly during the warmer months; but on one trek I made there several years ago in mid-winter, I was granted the gift of complete solitude. Not a soul was in sight, and the tower itself, a museum now, was closed. Beneath a snow-cloud sky and surrounded by silence, a strange thought came to me, possibly because the place felt so shrouded in isolation: what if this beautiful building, for some reason, became abandoned? I took that image away with me, kept picturing the tower dilapidated and forlorn—and then, somehow, redeemed. I began imagining a loving family, maybe, purchasing the property and then restoring the building. And what if that family had itself suffered some tragedy, was itself in need of redemption? What if they were grieving, and the building itself played some role in allowing them to heal?
Those thoughts were the heart of what became The Einsteins of Vista Point, though I had no clear idea of the direction of my story at the outset. As the image of the tower remained with me, though, and I moved into a meandering draft of a book centered on that building, I kept feeling that whatever story might emerge would somehow feature loss and sadness—and, ultimately, renewal. I eventually found myself focusing on a family I called the Einsteins—in particular, eleven-year-old Zack Einstein—and the aftermath of the tragic loss of their youngest member, Susan. By way of attempting to patch their lives back together, the Einstein parents resolve that they and their four remaining children will relocate to a rural area I ended up calling Vista Point. From there, I began to picture Zack not merely exploring the stone building (or, as I came to call it in my book, “the Tower”) adjacent to the property his family now owns, but also finding a new friend, all as part of his—and his family’s—larger endeavor to make peace with tragedy.
My hope is that readers will find themselves moved by Zack’s emotional journey, but also drawn in by other elements of the story, too: the lush and mysterious forest around Vista Point; the puzzle of the Tower and the strange medallion on its ceiling; and the enigma of a series of lights flashing from far across the bordering river at Zack and his siblings one night as they admire the summer stars. I’ve always loved stories that feature mysterious locales, magical objects, hidden clues, and moments of danger, and I’ve tried to fold these particulars into The Einsteins of Vista Point even while anchoring the story in a practicality: What does it means to grow as a person, even through deep pain?
The opportunity to author a story that focuses on young people and their adventures—mysterious, magical, or thrilling—while simultaneously navigating emotional terrain, is part of what draws me to write for a Middle-Grade audience. I find the landscape very liberating and more exploratory (at least to my sensibility) than what would be available to me at, say, the Young Adult level. The MG reader is old enough to have a relatively complex understanding of the world (and often a great sense of humor, too) without being overly jaded or cynical. A few years down the line, this audiences’ positions might become somewhat rigid or zealous; but in the 8–12 age-range, I like to think kids are more open to a type of enchantment that might not endear YA readers.
In short, I believe MG literature explores the journey into maturity even as it retains degrees of innocence and idealism. On a more personal and immediate level, though, I enjoy writing MG stories because I recall the thrill of losing myself in a good book when I myself was in the middle-grade period of my life. All of which is to say: MG is where I feel most comfortable as an author—and I’m glad to have written The Einsteins of Vista Point for this particular audience. I hope readers find the story gratifying and enjoyable.
by Ben Guterson
Illustrated by Petur Antonsson
After the tragic loss of their sister, Zack and his siblings band together to investigate a Morse Code-inspired mystery in this stunning novel about grief and resilience.
When Zack’s younger sister dies in a tragic accident, his family moves to a small town in the Northwest to try and heal from all the pain. Eleven-year-old Zack blames himself for his sister’s death, and he struggles to find any comfort in his new surroundings. Vista Point is home to many mysterious landmarks: The great domed Tower casts inscrutable shadows, and what is the cryptic message in its ceiling medallion? There are several hidden watering holes and even a secret cave in the woods with messages written on its walls. Zack, at first, feels lost in Vista Point. Until he meets Ann, a girl who lives in the area and shows Zack all the special places to be discovered. But there’s something that seems a bit strange about Ann—and perhaps a secret she is keeping from him.
With emotional depth, an unforgettable setting, and a winning cast of characters, this masterful novel thoughtfully explores the grieving process, and how a season of pain can evolve into a summer of healing.