I’ve been a big Katherine Arden fangirl ever since I read The Bear and the Nightingale and my author crush only grew bigger as the rest of that trilogy came out. For the Magical Readathon, I thought I’d finally pick up one of Arden’s middle grade novels which all look delightfully creepy, yet adorable. I was not disappointed. This was pretty much exactly what I had hoped for and exactly what the cover makes you expect.
by Katherine Arden
Published by: Putnam & Sons, 2018
eBook: 224 pages
Series: Small Spaces #1
My rating: 7/10
Opening line: October in East Evansburg, and the last warm sun of the year slanted red through the sugar maples.
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.
11-year-old Ollie is great at math and used to be champion of her school’s chess club. But then she stopped participating about a year ago and doesn’t care much about school or grades or chess anymore. We find out the reason for that later in this book which forces Ollie to come out of her shell, realize how much life she still has left to live and how there are wonderful people out there who care for her. But I’m making this sound super tragic when in fact, the story is fast paced and fun to read.
When Ollie meets a distraught crying woman by the creek on her way home and keps her from throwing away a book (what’s wrong with people? You don’t throw books away, you donate them!) by promptly stealing it, her life takes a decidedly supernatural turn. The book called Small Spaces is a written account from a mother to her daughter about the tragic events surrounding her two sons. It’s exciting and mysterious and Ollie basically just wants to keep reading but school gets in the way. And not just regular school, but a trip to a local farm named Smoke Hollow, which definitely won’t allow her to sneak away for any reading time. Also, Smoke Hollow sounds an awful lot like the farm in Ollie’s stolen book and if it really is the same one, that means two men went missing many years ago under mysterious circumstances.
The kids spend an educational day at the farm, although people aren’t all behaving what you’d call normal and Ollie sees the occasional weird thing – like scarecrows appearing out of nowhere and a decidedly cryptic bus driver – but when they want to go back home, their bus breaks down. And that’s when the really creepy stuff begins…
I really adored this book. Ollie is a protagonist who’s easy to like even though she’s quite complicated. Ever since her mother died, she’s withdrawn into herself. We see her deal with grief in her own way, how annoyed she gets when people make the “sympathy face”, how certain things she used to love can’t be enjoyed anymore because the way her mom died makes that impossible. We also see Ollie’s relationship to her father who is really trying his best and whose delightfully unstereotypical personality made me cheer! Seriously, he knits and bakes and generally does things that cliché tells us are reserved for women and nobody bats an eye.
The side characters also show just how easy inclusion can be, how girls can be friends with each other even though the other girl might have the hair color you wish you had yourself, how you don’t have to follow tropes just because they exist. Brian is the school’s hockey star, tall and muscular and a lot of girls’ secret (or not so secret) crush. You’d expect him to run with the bullies and while some of his friends may be idiots, he himself stands out – and not just because he is the only Black kid in Ollie’s class. He’s no knight in shining armor either, but really a believable character with flaws of his own and a good heart (and no, I’m not jus tsaying that because he reads books, although yes, I do admit that it hit me in a very soft spot of my heart when I found that out).
And Coco, that tiny adorable strawberry-haired girl who cries too much, always seems to be in the middle of drama, and mostly annoys Ollie, turns out to have qualities nobody expected. I also loved that her frequent crying is shown to be a strength rather than a weakness!
As you can expect, Ollie, Coco and Brian have to team up to fight against the evil that’s lurking at Smoke Hollow and their adventure brings them closer together. Sometimes, quite literally, as the titular “small spaces” play an important role in this story. If you scare easily or don’t like reading horror, don’t worry. This is clearly a kid’s book and while I found the idea of the evil creatures cool, they’re not really scary and Katherine Arden doesn’t linger on their creepy aspects. And even if you found them scary, the chapters are so short that any danger is quickly over again and our heroes emerge victorious. I don’t think that’s a spoiler for a middle grade book. Things do get resolved, the mystery unravels, each of our heroes plays a vital role and Ollie gets to use her brain to save a whole bunch of people.
I was particularly moved by the ending, not only because these resourceful kids get out of a scary and dangerous situation alive and well, but because Ollie has grown as a character, she has learned to deal with her mother’s death a little better and she appreciates her father more. Plus, she has two new friends, whetehr she likes it or not. This ended the book on a high note for me and made me want to read the next one right away. If you like ghost stories for children and are looking for a book with a fall vibe, this is perfect!
I will definitely continue this delightful series (after the current readathon). It’s the kind of book I wish had existed when I was a kid that age. I would have loved it even more.
MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good