After suffering a tragic loss, eleven-year-old Ollie only finds solace in books. So when she happens upon a crazed woman at the river threatening to throw a book into the water, Ollie doesn’t think — she just acts, stealing the book and running away. As she begins to read the slender volume, Ollie discovers a chilling story about a girl named Beth, the two brothers who both loved her, and a peculiar deal made with “the smiling man,” a sinister specter who grants your most tightly held wish, but only for the ultimate price.
Ollie is captivated by the tale until her school trip the next day to Smoke Hollow, a local farm with a haunting history all its own. There she stumbles upon the graves of the very people she’s been reading about. Could it be the story about the smiling man is true?
Note: I chopped off the bottom two-thirds of the publisher’s “synopsis” because it was ridiculously full of spoilers.
- Title: Small Spaces
- Author: Katherine Arden
- Cover Artist: Matt Saunders
- Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
- ISBN: 9780525515029
- Publication Date: September 25, 2018
- For Ages: 10-12
- Category: Middle Grade
- Spooky-Scary or Spooky-Fun? ☠️ Scary.
Wherever you go in this big, gorgeous, hideous world, there is a ghost story waiting for you.
Such is the wisdom of Katherine Arden’s eerie middle grade novel Small Spaces; she doesn’t know it, but she has written the words that will one day go on my tombstone. Perhaps I’ll add a small engraving of a scarecrow to give ghost hunters an extra fright…
But I digress. Small Spaces is the story of Ollie Adler, a sixth grade math whiz and fierce feminist who has withdrawn from her friends and dropped all school activities in the wake of her mother’s death. Her only solace is in books, so when she finds a woman trying to throw a book in the river one day, she steals the book from the woman in order to rescue it. When Ollie reads it, she finds that the book is a diary of horrific events that happened in the very place where her class will soon be taking a field trip…and that history may be about to repeat itself.
This is one of the creepiest books I’ve read this year. Don’t scoff just yet — I know I review a lot of cute board books on this site, which aren’t really all that terrifying, but I also review books for adult horror fans on my other blog, so when I say that this book scared me more than almost anything I’ve read all year, you know it’s legitimately creepy. There’s a sense of dread that seeps slowly throughout the book, and once we get to the action (hinted at by that glorious Halloween-y cover), Arden demonstrates that she understands exactly how frightening scarecrows truly are. They’re always staring at you. They seem to move as soon as you turn your back on them. I’ve been convinced for my entire life that one of these days I’d catch a scarecrow moving before I’d even had a chance to turn away, and Arden has finally confirmed my suspicions.
But enough of my nightmares! In addition to Ollie’s feminism, I appreciated Arden’s characterization of Ollie’s classmate Coco. She’s a very pretty, feminine young girl who cries quite often, but as Ollie discovers: “Coco didn’t cry because she was weak. Coco cried because she felt things.” Differentiating feeling from weakness — and differentiating femininity from weakness — is an important distinction to make, particularly in a middle grade book. The earlier you can teach kids this vital lesson, the better.
Arden deliberately breaks down racial and gender stereotypes in this book, as Ollie’s classmate Brian, who is Black and immigrated from Jamaica at a very young age, is a star hockey player, and Ollie’s dad knits and bakes. Arden does this in a positive, organic manner that supports the already well-drawn characterizations. Ollie’s dad in particular is such a nurturing figure that I can’t imagine him not having a project on the needles or something delicious in the oven. And Ollie’s mom was a bold adventurer, a strong athlete, and a fierce protector. We don’t see much of her interacting with Ollie, but what we do see is heart-wrenching. Arden’s handling of Ollie’s grief is subtle and gentle; she slowly tells us more and more about what happened to Ollie’s mother and how Ollie has dealt with (or denied) the loss.
Despite a slightly rushed ending, Small Spaces is a deliciously suspenseful tale of loss, survival, and friendship. Katherine Arden’s prose is gorgeous, filled with dreamy, lyrical asides. The story alternates between eerie and pulse-pounding; when we can’t see any monsters, dread still rolls in like fog. Whether Ollie is running from scarecrows or denying her own grief, Arden has a message for her: whatever demons you’re trying to avoid, you can’t hide forever.
This is a perfect Halloween read. I give this book 5 out of 5 coffins.