smiling men and small spaces

If middle-grade fiction isn’t your thing, and Russian History and Fairytales are, Katherine Arden is author of the excellent The Bear and The Nightingale (of The Winternight Trilogy).

small spaces coverSmall Spaces by Katherine Arden. Putnam (Penguin), Sept. 2018

Hardcover, 224 pages. Ages 8-13.

Mark your annual calendars for September 1st in anticipation of corn maze and scare crow season; the time of year when children get on yellow school buses and take a trip to a local farm. You’ll want to take advantage of this deliciously creepy seasonal read.

In the spirit of creepy tale-tellers like Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Auxier, or Holly Black, the whimsy that delights us, can also tilt and tint toward dark; and the grief that orbits everything round a loved-one, can also invite the haunting of unsavory figures—like “the smiling man.”

Eleven-year-old Ollie uses books to escape the fresh grief the tragic loss of her mother brings. It’s Ollie’s regard of books that has her rescuing the one some crazed lady tries to the throw in the creek. The book is called Small Spaces, published in 1895 by a Beth Webster, and it tells a tragic family story set in Smoke Hollow (years before it would become Valley Mist Farm).

The book comes with two refrains Ollie will have to decipher once she and her classmates find themselves caught up in a Webster family legacy of deals with a devilish figure.

“You must avoid large spaces at night, keep small.”

“Until the Mist becomes Rain.”

Evansburg is a small Vermont town, and one Ollie (not Olivia to you) was comfortable in, until her adventurer mother died. She hiked with her mother, tapped maple trees, solved mathematical equations in her head, and learned chess. Her mother named the rooms in their warm, colorful house nicknamed the Egg, where her father made the syrup and whose love language is cooking, baking, and crafts. She raised her hand, played softball, was in chess club and had friends at school, but now she wanted to be left alone.

But everyone was required to go on the field trip to potentially haunted and evidently successful eco-tourist destination: Valley Mist Farms. It’s educational in ways Ollie couldn’t anticipate thanks to a disturbing new bus driver and an old family cemetery. The bad things begin when the bus breaks down on the road home and a heavy mist arrives.

Fortunately, Ollie minds the broken watch that belonged to her mother and has the nerve to believe the bus driver’s warning. She exits the bus and runs for it.

Two other students join her. Newly imported from the city, sensitive and clumsy: Coco. And popular, hockey player, best friend to a boy who bullies Coco: Brian. Brian who surprises Ollie with his love of reading (and memorization of Alice in Wonderland’s “Jabberwocky”), seems to have developed a fascination with Ollie.

What follows is a race against time and an escape from a horrible threat. The trio use all their resources from hiking and boy scouts and climbing to survive a full night and day traversing a farm that appears to exist on another plane. There is the puzzle of how to evade capture, rescue their classmates, and get home. It involves the Websters, the smiling man, his hellish hound, the scarecrows and the ghosts—and Ollie’s mom.

Ollie and her mom and her dad are the heart of the story; her (new) friendships and their adventure nestle in; and the horror rounds it all out nicely. Arden draws good characters and writes some exhilarating terror. I especially enjoyed the countdowns on the watch, the villains, and the frustrating and brilliant riddle in “Until the Mist becomes Rain.”

It takes all the wits and nerve Ollie has to survive, and the considerable lung capacity and a strong pulse on the part of the reader to get to the end of the book. I wouldn’t allow yourself to think that just because this is a Juvenile Fiction that everyone is going to make it out in their skin. Part of the scare is compounded by each revelation that not everyone has.

Some will never leave you, some have become the haunting of a place, some have become the scarecrow with the stitched on grin.

line clipartRecommended for grade-schoolers who enjoy an adventure, a fright, and/or friendship stories. Small Spaces could be enjoyed anytime, but Autumn leading into Halloween would make it more fun.  For readers of Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Auxier, Holly Black, or R.L. Stine.

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