Monday, September 24, 2018
In Small Spaces by Katherine Arden introduces us to Olivia, an eleven-year-old girl reeling from the loss of her mother. Ollie's pulled away from everything - she avoids the other kids at school, she's quit all the activities she used to do. Ollie just wants to be alone with her books, and on this last glorious, sunshiney afternoon of the fall, that's what she's headed to do. But when she stumbles across a distraught woman about to throw a book - a book! - into the river, Ollie stops her and takes the book.
As Ollie becomes entranced by the story in the book - a story about two brothers and a sinister deal made with a man called "the smiling man" - she starts to realize that the story might be based in reality. Her sixth-grade class is taking a trip to a nearby farm and when their teacher reluctantly tells the class about some of the ghost stories surrounding the farm, they sound eerily familiar.
And then on the way home from the field trip, the bus breaks down close to dark. The creepy bus driver warns Ollie "Best get moving. At nightfall they'll come for the rest of you." And Ollie's long-broken digital watch, a keepsake from her mother, starts displaying a countdown and one word: RUN.
(Is there anything creepier than someone in a story getting a message that just says RUN? Instant panic, amiright?)
If you've read Katherine Arden's adult fantasy novels The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, you know she is a master at creating atmosphere and she brings this mastery into this middle grade story as well. From the weather changing to the descriptions of small creepy things like the leering scarecrows in the field and the recalcitrant new bus driver, Arden paints a picture for the reader. There were so many passages that I just read over and over for the shiver down my spine before I raced on, needing to know what happens next.
And the level of scariness is a good fit for this age group. This is a book that I wouldn't hesitate to hand to upper elementary students looking for a scare but not yet ready for the violence that often comes with scary stories. It delivers a good eerie, sinister vibe without getting graphic.
Readers who enjoy a scary story with tons of atmosphere might also enjoy The Riverman by Aaron Starmer (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014).
The tone and atmosphere of this book also really reminded me of a couple of my favorites: The Thickety by J.A. White (Katherine Tegan, 2014) and Doll Bones by Holly Black (McElderry, 2013).
Small Spaces by Katherine Arden. Grades 4-6. Putnam, September 2018. 224 pages. Reviewed from ARC provided by publisher.