Title: Small Spaces
Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: Middle grade, paranormal, horror, fantasy
My rating: ★★★★
Bestselling adult author of The Bear and the Nightingale makes her middle grade debut with a creepy, spellbinding ghost story destined to become a classic
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? Ollie doesn’t have too long to think about the answer to that. On the way home, the school bus breaks down, sending their teacher back to the farm for help. But the strange bus driver has some advice for the kids left behind in his care: “Best get moving. At nightfall they’ll come for the rest of you.” Nightfall is, indeed, fast descending when Ollie’s previously broken digital wristwatch, a keepsake reminder of better times, begins a startling countdown and delivers a terrifying message: RUN.
Only Ollie and two of her classmates heed the bus driver’s warning. As the trio head out into the woods–bordered by a field of scarecrows that seem to be watching them–the bus driver has just one final piece of advice for Ollie and her friends: “Avoid large places. Keep to small.”
And with that, a deliciously creepy and hair-raising adventure begins.
I truly appreciate Katherine Arden so much as a writer. She paints such perfect pictures and makes you feel like you’re right there. I was first introduced to her writing when I read The Bear and the Nightingale, and while these two stories are geared toward different age groups, Arden once again brought us all the the spooky, dark vibes.
Small Spaces follows Ollie, a sixth-grader from Vermont who is recovering from the death of her mom. She’s depressed and tends to isolate herself from friends and her father. One day she comes across a woman crying. The woman is holding a book called Small Spaces, and she wants to throw it into the creek. Ollie believes books shouldn’t be thrown away so she takes it. The following day she and her classmates go on a field trip to a farm, and Ollie begins to notice strange similarities between the farm and the spooky contents in the book. Ollie and her two classmates, Brian and Coco, now have to work together to figure out how to escape the woods and save their friends.
Small Spaces is such a perfect read for Halloween. I think even if you’re an adult you’ll still love the haunted setting and atmospheric writing. I can’t really gauge the “creep factor” for children, but I think if I had to rate it on a scale of 1-5 (5 being the scariest) I’d probably give it 3.5. While I didn’t find it to be scary I can see this perhaps freaking out young readers since there are some creepy scenes that involve ghosts, dark woods, and being chased.
But aside from the horror plot line, there were so many wonderful themes I appreciated. This story beautifully showcases the importance of friendship and teamwork. It’s about standing up for someone and caring for them in dire times. It’s about facing your fears while also coming to terms with loss and healing emotionally.
Arden also includes some of the best characters. Coco reminded me a lot of Luna Lovegood, how she dances to beat of her own drum and doesn’t care what others think. And Brian is a sporty “jock” from Jamaica who isn’t afraid to step up to help others. While this book does have some bullying I love how Arden addresses stereotypes and shows us how these children handle it.
Overall this book was such a treat to read and I really hope we see more middle grade books from Katherine Arden. I am so happy I read this in the Fall. ❤
Content/trigger warning: Loss of a parent, minor bullying, depression.