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.
Small Spaces is fantastically creepy. This, in part, is due to the book’s vivid atmosphere. It was 90+ degrees outside while I was reading it, and every sentence surrounded me with the chill of mid-autumn. I frequently found myself stumbling outside into the Georgia sun, only to wonder where all the Halloween costumes and apple cider were.
In addition to being transportive, the book features a cast of likable and interesting characters. Too often, stories that begin in a school setting lean too far into social tropes. (Don’t get me wrong - this is not exclusively a middle-grades problem.) While this can provide writers of fantastical books room to move quickly through more “mundane” bits of plot, it can also unnecessarily flatten characters.
Arden doesn’t do this. From the very beginning, her characters defy the tropes I expected them to fit. Fierce Ollie stands up for new girl Coco, who has an eccentric and dainty reputation. Brian, the handsome athlete who accompanies Ollie and Coco into the woods, is kind and helpful throughout the journey. We see three kids who run in very different circles develop a deep understanding for one another.
And this is just the main trio. There are many exciting twists regarding good guys and bad guys. Some characters, perhaps more interestingly, turn out to be neutral.
The world Arden builds around this story is high-stakes and eerie, just unexplored enough to keep a grasp on readers’ interests. Spooky cornfields, old farms, and journals of those long dead all pitch in to create Arden’s masterpiece of an atmosphere.
Naturally, scarecrow armies come next.
The brilliance of the scarecrows is that they’re not just spooky space-fillers. Small Spaces deals with pretty heavy ideas like death, grief, and family, ideas that call into question what it means to be a human interacting with other humans, ideas that might seem scary and monstrous to kids (and really, everyone). When themes like this are set against strange, humanoid, inanimate-but-animate monsters, well . . . no spoilers, but it goes to interesting places.
And ultimately, those places are optimistic. Small Spaces is about adventure and fantasy and creepy autumn ambiance, but it’s also about the role we can play in our own grief. We don’t have to remain imprisoned by our emotions, so long as we are determined to love, in the same way that our diverse protagonists insist on loving each other. Love can bring us out of grief, and maybe - just maybe - save us from armies of super-spooky, semi-sentient scarecrows.
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