By Ekta R. Garg
August 14, 2019
Genre: Middle grade horror
Release date: September 2018
Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars
A young girl recovering from a recent tragedy must think on her feet to help herself and her classmates out of a scary situation involving ghosts. If she can’t find the answers—or the heart to follow them—all of the kids will be stuck serving an evil power. Author Katherine Arden gives middle grade readers a fair number of thrills and touching moments in the novel Small Spaces.
Olivia “Ollie” Adler just wishes she could stop being “that” girl. The one whose mother died. The one who had a breakdown after it happened. She’s done everything she could to make herself invisible including quitting the softball team and the chess club. But people still keep looking at her and gossiping.
Like when she stands up for Coco Zintner. Is it really Ollie’s fault that Coco has a weird name and is, like, two feet tall? What’s even weirder is that Coco doesn’t really fight back, and she doesn’t seem to hold a grudge afterwards. Just because Ollie stood up to a bunch of the jocks, like Brian Battersby, Coco thinks they’re best friends or something. All the more reason to get lost in a good book. Books are reliable.
On her way home from school one day, Ollie sees a woman standing at the edge of a lake with a book in her hand. The woman looks like she’s ready to pitch the book in the water, and Ollie can’t help herself. She stops to find out what’s going on. The woman looks at her with wild eyes, so Ollie just rescues the book and gets out of there before the crazy lady can hurt her.
When she starts reading, she discovers that the book is actually an old journal kept by someone named Beth who tells the story of her life, hoping, she says, to make sense of it. At one time, a pair of brothers vied for Beth’s attention. Both of them, she says, disappeared after paying a terrible price for one another.
The story is freaky, but what’s even more freaky is the field trip Ollie’s class takes to the very farm where Beth lived. When the class boards the bus to leave, the bus gets lost in a fog that appears out of nowhere. Ollie’s instincts tell her to get off the bus, and just before she does the driver gives her a warning: stick to the small spaces, he says, if she wants to survive.
Coco tags along, and at the last minute Brian does too. The three decide to trek back to the farm to get help, and along the way Ollie learns more about Coco. Even though she’s known Brian for practically most of her life, he, too, surprises her. The three begin to work together as true friends, which will become essential if they want to get out of the woods alive.
Author Katherine Arden offers readers a number of refreshing elements that make the book a departure from others. Ollie’s father breaks stereotypes by being the main chef of the family, a track of the story that is already well established before the novel begins. He doesn’t “discover” a knack for cooking in the wake of losing his wife; instead, his cooking gives him an outlet to reach Ollie through her grief. His dependability—that no matter how hard Ollie cries or how bad the day is, she’ll always have a good meal at the end of it—will endear him to readers, despite the fact that he disappears (out of necessity) for part of the book.
Also, Arden takes Brian from a casual bystander to one of the main supporting characters with deft. She shows his middle school awkwardness in an organic way; it’s clear that Brian feels safe enough with Ollie to share parts of his personality that he wouldn’t share with his hockey friends. Yet sometimes he reverts to that role of class jock, and this seesawing of his nature comes straight out of any middle school. Readers will have no trouble relating to either him or Ollie.
Coco is the livewire, the smallest member of the trio in stature but one who will surprise Ollie, Brian, and readers time and again. Arden establishes her early on as the annoying girl, which gives her space and time to deepen her character when the three friends are faced with the most dire circumstances.
The scary elements later in the book might frighten more sensitive readers, but those who look forward to a good thrill will love them. Arden keeps offering surprises while balancing them with real-life elements, making the book a winner in the end. I recommend readers Bookmark Small Spaces by Katherine Arden.