SMALL SPACES: Huge Shivers for Tweens

Lynn: Do you love a scary book? Well, Bookends readers, have we got a treat for you! Katherine Arden’s new middle-grade book, Small Spaces (2018), is the most deliciously scary book you could hope for. This is a just-one-more-chapter-gulp-it-down-in-one-sitting book, and it’s the real, eerie deal.

Grieving her mother, 12-year-old Ollie has withdrawn from friends, activities, and even her caring dad. She has found her only solace in books and solitude because those “sympathy faces” are too much to bear. Escaping from school one day, Ollie comes across a strange scene at her favorite refuge. A distraught, sobbing woman is attempting to throw a book into the river. Ollie can’t stand the thought, so she grabs the book and races off. Examining the old book, she discovers the title, Small Spaces, and that it seems to be an account of some extremely odd events that happened long ago.

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

Ollie wants to do nothing but read it, but the next day is the sixth-grade trip to a local farm. Ollie is shocked to discover that the farm’s owner and tour guide is none other than the sobbing woman from the day before! Even odder are the grave markers she sees at the farm that have the same names as the people in the book. As the bus returns home at the end of the day, a dense fog envelopes the bus and the engine dies. The strange substitute bus driver turns his suddenly opaque white eyes to kids and says, “Best get moving. At nightfall they’ll come for the rest of you.”

Yikes! How is that last quote for a book talk? Brilliantly crafted, this story is masterfully plotted. There isn’t an action or event that doesn’t come back around to serve the plot. Arden’s descriptive language is wonderfully written, too, with shivery images that light up in the reader’s imagination. And scary? This is one of the scariest, most breath-catching books I’ve read in a long time, all the while being completely appropriate for middle-grade readers.

Cindy: Are you still reading this post instead of searching for this book to read it? This story is all that Lynn promises, and more. I’m booktalking to sixth graders today and wish I had a dozen copies on hand. One of the treats is the nod to other scary folktales and ghost stories Arden has woven in. Ollie is warned to “avoid large spaces at night, keep to small.” That refrain I recognize from a favorite chilling Japanese folktale, “The Boy Who Drew Cats.” One picture book version of that tale is by Margaret Hodges and illustrated by Aki Sogabe. It would be fun to share it with students reading Arden’s book. In fact, I would have loved a list of other references to classic tales and motifs for readers to follow.

Separate from the frights (the scarecrows with their trowel and rake hands and the bus driver are truly creepy), the portrayal of Ollie’s grief and her loneliness add to the mood of the story. A broken watch that comes to life with messages to help her in the fight against the smiling man and in her longing for her mother, is a wonderful touch. The epilogue gives hope that there will be a sequel. Yes, please!

The cover is great and will sell this book without a booktalk, but what a delicious booktalk it will make! Stock up, NOW.



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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