Review of the Day: Small Spaces by Katherine Arden
In fourth grade I sold my soul to the Scholastic Book Club’s Apple paperbacks. There was only one thing in the entire world I ever wanted to read, at that point. Only one thing that could make my little heart go pitter-pat, and that was the comforting presence of ghost stories. This was long before Bob Stine decided to slap an “R.L.” in front of his last name and stake a claim in the world of G-rated horror fare. But it was also long after John Bellairs made it his business to truck in the middle grade supernatural. The Apple paperbacks had titles like Ghost Cat, and Wait Till Helen Comes, and The Dollhouse Murders. They were written by folks like Betty Ren Wright and Willo Davis Roberts and Mary Down Hahn, and I loved them dearly. I wanted to be scared, but in the safest way imaginable. I remember distinctly picking up some rando Alfred Hitchcock story collection for kids and reading the warning that it would be the scariest thing I ever encountered, only to return it to the library without going any further. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark worked for me, if only because the stories themselves were just lame urban legends, while the art by Stephen Gammell was synthesized, purified nightmare fuel, perfect for sleepovers. All this is to say that I like to think I know my way around a scary book for the 9-12 year old set. It’s been a long time since I’ve found something that really made me nostalgic for those days of yore. Then I read a book that’s going to be absolutely perfect for those kids that loved Stranger Things and want something in the children’s room of the library that feels like that. Are you afraid of scarecrows? No? Well bad news, bucko. You’re about to be.
We all deal with trauma in different ways. When you lose someone close to you, you find a way of dealing with the pain. For Ollie, books have always been her escape. After her mom’s death, Ollie has consistently lost herself in novels of every stripe, shutting out the world around her. Maybe that’s why she did it. Maybe that’s why she stole that woman’s book. It wasn’t anything she intended to do, of course, but one day, after school, Ollie encountered an odd woman on the cusp of chucking an old book into the river. Possessed by a sense of urgency, Ollie gets the book away from the woman, but not before she is handed a bit of advice. Avoid large spaces. Stick to small. Delving into the book later that night, Ollie discovers it to be the tale of a family wrenched apart by someone only known as “The Smiling Man” and the promises he makes. When Ollie is dragged onto a school trip to a local farm, she doesn’t connect the story with the world around her. Not until she starts noticing the scarecrows. Not until the school bus breaks down in the mist. And not until the scarecrows start noticing her too.
Allow me to pause for a moment and offer an ode to a grand first page. A truly good first page of a children’s novel is a thing of beauty. It’s not that anything has to happen, necessarily. It’s just that if the author is talented enough then they will actually be able to convey, in roughly half a page, right from the start, whether or not they’re the kind of writer you want to dedicate several hours of your life to. Now consider the first page of Small Spaces. There are ten sentences there and within those ten there are already three or four that I adore. The first reads, “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 and wishing she were on the other side of the glass. You don’t waste October sunshine.” Aside from being a pretty effective method of conveying a lot of information about a character without being too obvious about it, it’s also an interesting case of foreshadowing. Later in the novel there will be darker moments of craving the October sunshine and of staring through window panes both wanting, and not wanting, to be on the other side. The other sentences read “Mike Campbell got the shivers from squeaking blackboards and, for some reason, from people licking paper napkins. The sixth grade licked napkins around him as much as possible.” No real foreshadowing in that one, and Mike’s not even that important a character. I just love how it’s written.
That keen authorial bent with a pen doesn’t just stop on that first page either. Arden’s descriptions can often be delicious. “Her eyes looked – stretched – the way a dog looks, hiding under the bed during a thunderstorm.” Or, “The parking lot was full of puddles and the bus squatted in the middle of it like a prehistoric swamp monster.” Extra points are also allotted for including in the book quotes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that aren’t the usual suspects. Kids aren’t going to walk away from this book talking it up and lending it to their friends because of the similes or the Lewis Carroll shout-outs, though. They’re going to hand it around because Arden has mastered the art of rising tension that delivers. A good horror novel for kids shouldn’t just feel increasingly creepy. There has to be something truly terrible at its core that is going to get you and do something unspeakable to you. If the threat isn’t real, the tension isn’t going to work. But don’t worry. In this book the threat is real, the bad guy is terrifying, and the tension . . . well, let’s just say you could cut it with a knife hanging off of a smiling scarecrow’s arm.
Now you can’t just write a book about a girl going on a creepy school trip. It’s a good thing to mention in the elevator pitch for the book, but there’s gotta be a little more meat on the bones (so to speak). Ollie’s mother is dead so right there that’s good. Dead moms are infinitely good fodder for a storytelling, particularly if the kid isn’t handling it particularly well. If you sit down and consider how odd it is that a remarkably traumatic night is what it takes to help the main character work through her grief, it is a little odd. But hey! That’s what storytelling is all about. Each of the three main kid characters is a fully rendered human being too. Ollie is (Arden is adept at making sure that tragedy does not equate personality) and so too are Coco and Brian. Coco in particular is a character I’ve never encountered in a children’s book before. Sweet, small, probably rich, and a perpetual victim. There’s a lovely moment late in the book when Ollie zeroes in on what makes Coco tick. “Coco didn’t cry because she was weak. Coco cried because she felt things. Ollie never cried because she didn’t feel things. Not anymore. Not really. She tried not to feel things.” Look at the beautiful repetition of those same words, over and over, repeated in different ways in those sentences. It’s still remarkable to me, after all these years, that you can take so few words in a children’s book, rearrange them slightly, and say something profound about a character’s very make-up.
The very first moment Ollie is told the titular advice to “Avoid large places at night” and “Keep to small” a memory twitched at the back of my brain. I’d heard that advice before. Where? Ah yes. “The Boy Who Drew Cats”. It’s a Japanese folktale, easily found in (amongst other things) Fable Comics, edited by Chris Duffy. In that story, when a boy leaves the safety of a monastery he is given the advice, “Avoid large places, stick to small.” It’s not a particularly well-known story here in the States and I thought it a clever adaptation to this particular book. Arden makes no mention of the tale in her Acknowledgments so I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence or not. Let’s just say it’s good advice, regardless of where it comes from.
Living as we do in a post-Goosebumps world, it’s still funny to me that people haven’t taken more advantage of children’s endless appetites for horror. You’ll occasionally get a television show like Are You Afraid of the Dark? but it’s exceedingly rare. Fortunately middle grade novels never stopped producing creepy fare. Mary Downing Hahn is still alive, kicking, and churning out deathly fare. Mr. R.L. Stine still rules the roost. And with new authors like Katherine Arden picking up the mantle (picking up, heck – improving the mantle!) I’m confident these books aren’t going anywhere. At one point in this book Seth, the farm hand, says to Ollie, “Wherever you go in this big, gorgeous, hideous world, there is a ghost story waiting for you.” You can take that as a threat if you like, but I take it as a promise.
For ages 10-12.
On shelves September 25th
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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Misc: Special thanks to Jonathan Auxier for suggesting I read this book in the first place. You were right, man. This thing is great!
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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