Small Spaces by Katherine Arden
I fell in love with Small Spaces (2018) from the first paragraph. Before I even realized this was the same Katherine Arden whose adult fiction I’ve been meaning to read for years, and before I got caught up in the richly drawn characters and the spooky plot, I was smitten by this:
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. Soon the old autumn sun would bed down in cloud blankets, and there would be weeks of gray rain before it finally decided to snow. But Mr. Easton was teaching fractions and had no sympathy for Olivia’s fidgets.
I had the feeling I’d found something special, and I was right. Small Spaces is fantastic, and I recommend it to all readers from middle grade to 102.
Olivia, who would rather you called her Ollie, is an eleven-year-old girl dealing with the death of her mother. One afternoon she runs away to her favorite hiding place by the swimming hole, only to find a grown-up there, a woman, who is trying to throw a book into the river. Appalled, Ollie steals the book and rescues it from a watery doom. Taking it home, she’s captivated by the book’s tragic tale of two long-ago brothers and the woman they both loved.
The next day, her class takes a field trip to a farm on the outskirts of town. Ollie realizes the farm is situated on the same land described in the mysterious book, and that something is horribly wrong there. When the bus breaks down and strands the class, it’s up to Ollie and two classmates to save everyone and get them home.
All three of the main characters are well-developed. Ollie is prickly and acts out sometimes, but at the same time, we understand the pain behind it. Brian is the class jock, and Coco is the new girl from the city, who looks like a fairy princess. They each have hidden depths and strengths, which I won’t reveal here because it’s more fun to learn about them as Ollie does. All three kids’ abilities are needed to escape the evil force that haunts the farm. Also wonderful is Ollie’s dad, who expresses love through food. The descriptions of his baked goods reminded me of some of the lovely moments of food-related homeyness in Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap, another favorite of mine.
The prose, as I mentioned above, is beautiful, and never talks down to its young audience. It’s terrifically evocative. You can taste the apples and smell the autumn air, and then when the horror elements show up, they’re painted with the same eye for detail, which makes them scary as heck. This is a horror story with enough suspense and atmosphere to unnerve adult readers, but in keeping with its middle grade designation, it’s without gore.
Arden also incorporates modern technology into the tale in the form of Ollie’s watch. I won’t spoil everything about this element, but it’s great. There’s an early moment involving it that made me say “Oh, CRAP” aloud. It also plays a role, though, in some of the most heartwarming scenes of the book.
So … just go read Small Spaces already. It’s a delicious autumn read. I started it in the evening, finished it the next morning, and immediately bought the sequel, Dead Voices.
Avoid large places at night. Keep to small.
It’s an ambiguous but ominous warning that Ollie Adler gets from two different people and an old book. But why?
Olivia (Ollie), age 11, is having a tough time dealing with a recent personal tragedy, and getting sympathetic looks from her father and teacher only makes it worse. She’s withdrawn from activities like the softball team and chess club that she once loved. Ollie still finds comfort in books, though, so when she comes across a distraught woman about to toss an old book into a creek, she snatches the book and runs away with it, but not before the woman gives her some unasked-for advice about keeping to small spaces at night.
The worn-out book, titled Small Spaces, turns out to be a personal history written by Beth Webster in the late 1800s. Her tale starts out charming, as Beth writes about the two brothers who both wanted to marry her. But then the story turns ominous as conflict erupts between the brothers, one disappears and the other makes a deal with a mysterious, smiling man.
When Ollie goes on a school field trip to a nearby Vermont farm the next day, she’s a little alarmed to find that the history of Misty Valley farm is suspiciously similar to Beth Webster’s story in the stolen book. Creepy-looking scarecrows are everywhere she looks on the farm, with trowels or rakes for hands. Then the school bus breaks down in the fog going home, their teacher disappears in the mists, and their strange bus driver ominously warns Ollie to get moving … and to keep to small spaces at night.
Small Spaces (2018) is Katherine Arden’s follow-up to her medieval Russian fantasy series, the WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY. I never would have guessed that the author of The Bear and the Nightingale wrote this creepy middle grade horror novel! It’s written in a completely different style, and is clearly for a younger set of readers. Small Spaces doesn’t compare to the WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY in depth or complexity, but it’s not meant to do so, and it has its own brand of spine-tingling appeal.
The three tweens who are the main characters, Ollie and her classmates Brian and Coco, are realistically drawn and relatable, but unusual enough to be memorable. Coco is the cute, tiny new girl in town who’s teased to tears by the boys; Brian is a black athlete from Jamaica who sticks out in small-town Vermont, but he’s not only found a good set of friends but is willing to extend his concern to others outside of his circle. Each of them has her or his human flaws but also shows some surprising strengths.
“How is she the clumsiest person ever on the ground, yet a squirrel when she’s climbing?” muttered Ollie.
Brian grinned. “You’re kind of grumpy most of the time, but when things get bad, you’re the bravest. People can surprise you, Ollie-pop.”
Ollie and her two classmates learn how important it is to help and trust each other. Through their terrorizing experiences, Ollie also finds strength to deal with her personal loss of a loved one. Unlike too many YA and children’s novels, Ollie’s parents are a concerned and loving presence in her life, helping her in whatever ways they can. Her relationship with them is heart-warming.
Small Spaces is a page-turning supernatural thriller that is superficially like an R.L. Stine GOOSEBUMPS novel, but there’s much more substance to this tale (and better writing). Hand a copy of this book to a tween who likes scary stories … or enjoy the thrills and chills yourself!
I simply love Arden’s descriptive prose — it’s poetic, but not in a overwhelmingly purple way, if you know what I mean.
This one had been a Kindle deal, I think to promote the sequel that just came out, and the cover caught my eye, and as soon as I read the first page in the preview I was sold. I just wanted to curl up in it.
This sounds wonderful. I didn’t know she had written these!
They’re a lot of fun, and I really love her writing–I need to check out her other books soon.
I loved this book! I can’t wait to read the sequel!!!