{Review} SMALL SPACES by Katherine Arden

O P E N I N G   H O O K:

    October in East Evansburg, and the last warm sun of the year slanted red through the sugar maples. Olivia Adler sat nearest the big window in Mr. Easton’s math class, trying, catlike, to fit her entire body into a patch of light. She wished she were on the other side of the glass. You don’t waste October sunshine. 
(Page 1, US hardcover edition)

“When the mist rises, and the smiling man comes walking, you must avoid large places at night.
                                    Keep to small.” 

It is so hard to find a middle-grade book that is just the right amount of spine-tingling. One of my favorites to recommend is JUNIPER BERRY by M.P. Kozlowsky, which is no longer well-known. Then, of course, you have well-established titles such as CORALINE by Neil Gaiman and entire catalogs from authors such as Mary Downing Hahn and R.L. Stine. Another book in the genre I really love is DOLL BONES by Holly Black, which is a Newbery Honor title. Today, I'd like to introduce you to the new kid on the block, SMALL SPACES by Katherine Arden.

Initially, I knew about Arden because she wrote the popular adult fantasy Winternight trilogy, which begins with the much-acclaimed THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE. I had no clue what SMALL SPACES was about when I first heard of it -- or even that Arden had written a middle-grade novel! -- but I instantly knew I wanted it.

Ollie hasn't been the same since her mother died. Teachers and classmates still look at her with pity. She still gets a pass for tuning out the world and retreating into herself. She has no desire in going back to the hobbies she once loved such as softball and chess. One day on her way home from school, she sees some classmates bullying the new girl, Coco, and throws a rock at them, then flees. She wants nothing to do with them, and doesn't want to be Coco's friend. On her way home, she finds a desperate woman trying to destroy a book in a river and steals it for herself. The woman screams for her to keep to small spaces and avoid large ones at all costs, or the Smiling Man will find her. Ollie has no clue what that means and assumes the lady is crazy. She begins reading the book, entitled SMALL SPACES, which is a written account of two brothers who went missing long before she was born.

The next day, Ollie finds herself at the farm where the brothers once lived on a school trip, not realizing that the two are connected until it is far too late. When the trip home is halted by a bus breakdown, Ollie discovers that the Smiling Man is real -- and he wants her classmates. She flees the bus along with Coco and Brian (The boy she threw rocks at the day before, once more connecting the three of them together) and finds out the truth behind the brothers' disappearance, the Smiling Man, and the fate of their classmates -- and, perhaps, even themselves...

Arden deftly weaves words together to create a tense atmosphere and keep readers on their edge of their seats. Lines such as, "Then he smiled, tongue flicking red against his teeth" (Page, 96, US hardcover edition), bring images of serpents and tricksters to mind, and this use of language to give normal, every day actions a spine-tingling factor is utilized well. This book is spooky, and you might not look at scarecrows the same way again. But it isn't so scary that you'll forever have nightmares and be traumatized by clowns. It is appropriate for younger readers, and will even give chills to older readers, achieving a great balance that not all spooky fiction can.

Ollie was a standout character. When I took a secondary education course in college about integrating books into classrooms no matter the course (History, Physical Education, Art, etc), a friend who wanted to be a math teacher really struggled to find a book she could use in her classroom. I still think about her and that course every time I encounter a book that uses math. Ollie is AMAZING at math. She "doesn't use a calculator or scratch paper. The idea of using either had always puzzled her, as though someone had suggested she needed a spyglass to read a book" (page 3, US hardcover edition). Her mother was a college math professor and taught Ollie the tricks she needed to have math feel like second nature. "She had taught Ollie math with games. Multiplication, division. Later algebra, and then geometry: symbols like magic spells, written on the skin of the world" 9page 2, US hardcover edition). She even taught Ollie chess, and thought her daughter was a natural in a way she hadn't been. I love seeing girls good at math and science in books and am so glad to add Ollie to their ranks.

I also love the fact that Arden captures those awkward middle-school years. Few middle-grade books seem to capture them effectively. One of the most memorable is actually one I referenced earlier, DOLL BONES by Holly Black. I can still recall the way she described a boy as being "stretched like taffy" and the way the friends were trapped between still playing with dolls and being too old for them, etc. It is one of my most cherished examples of those awkward years. While Arden doesn't have those awkward moments in SMALL SPACES, she still manages to capture the essence of it. On the first page, she talks about classroom cruelty almost casually. There is a boy who has a phobia when it comes to witnessing people lick napkins, so of course, everyone in class does it around him as much as possible. Coco gets bullied because she has a crush on Brian and someone discovered her notebook with a drawing of the two of them. That's when Ollie stepped in with a rock, and the next day, the three are joined in trying to unfurl a mystery and save their classmates. At times, as a reader, I wondered if maybe Brian liked Ollie, and that's why he saved her from detention or got a little red in the ears when she sat next to him. The book doesn't act on any of these emotions and there's no romance, but it captures that age where we don't always recognize the ways we're changing and evolving just yet.

Writing this review today, I just found out that SMALL SPACES is getting a sequel, entitled DEAD VOICES. It's scheduled to be published August 27th, 2019, and features a brand-new adventure that has nothing to do with the first, other than the fact that Ollie, Coco, and Brian are now best friends. They go to a ski resort together for winter break and Ollie begins to think a ghost is following her around. I'm already here for this book! It felt like Arden was laying down roots for these characters, and we barely got to scrape the tip of their friendship by the end of SMALL SPACES. I'm so excited to see how they've grown and evolved and now figure into one another's lives, and think this is a great way to return to their world without feeling like we've been on this journey before! (Plus, as an older reader, it might be nice to see if any of the seeds for potential crushes come to fruition as the kids get older!)


Content Ratings: highlight between ( ) for details

Romance: --
Language: --
Violence: --G ( CNharacters die, both human and animal. Nothing super graphic, but not as innocent as other depictions of death for this age range. )
Other:  G ( Creepy moments; kids go missing; ghosts may appear; talk about the deceased and the missing; peculiar deaths; nothing graphic. )

C O V E R   D E S I G N:

This is one of those books that looks creepy and atmospheric, and then once you've READ it, it looks really spooky. Because now you know why all of these items are on the cover. That lurking scarecrow, the ones in the distance, the broken down buses...

Also, a shoutout to designer Matt Saunders for the incredible use of silhouette to create an alluring image. I love that the title, SMALL SPACES, is made out of tree branches -- and how spooky is that? We have a shadow of a scarecrow that could be part of the tree. And those leaves that look like bats or butterfly wings? Superb! 

This is a great, atmospheric cover, and I think readers looking for a creepy read will pick this up instantly!

O F F I C I A L   I N F O:

Author: Katherine Arden
Release Date: September 25, 2018
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers / Penguin Young Readers
Received: For Review

The 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.