Small Spaces by Katherine Arden



What would you do to get back the ones you love? In this story, Ollie, still in the throes of grief at the death of her mother, encounters a haggard, hysterical woman near a pond trying to get rid of a book. Her reasons for destroying it are cryptic and vague but Ollie grabs it and takes off on her bike. On a school class trip to a local farm, Ollie realizes that the woman who owns the farm is the same woman from the pond. Things get strange as Ollie and two of her friends not only enter the shadow world, but also escape becoming zombie scarecrows. Can they save their friends? Can Ollie face the truth that her mother is gone forever?


(b.)Ollie is a strong, independent 6th grade female. In the opening scene, Ollie throws a rock at Brian, who is holding Coco’s notebook. Coco is desperate to get it back and Ollie, while not friends with her, sees this action as an injustice. After emerging from the principal’s office, Brian denies that Ollie threw anything at him,

“Ollie turned to Brian and said, in a voice dripping scorn,


Brian looked lofty, ” I didn’t want to get a girl in trouble.”…

“First of all, I got myself in trouble,” Ollie said. ” I don’t need you to get me in trouble, thank you very much. And don’t treat me special because I’m a girl. That’s sexist.”…

“You could have just stuck up for Coco. Then I wouldn’t have been in the principal’s office in the first place. Where was your chivalry then?”

Here, not only is Ollie strong, and unafraid to stand up to injustice of others, she names patriarchal trends, such as sexism. These are values that are wonderful to see in works of middle grade fiction and personally, ones I hope to instill in my students and in my children. My husband and I, for example, work hard to compliment our daughter on her effort, ingenuity and strength as opposed to her looks, or other antiquated values. Young readers need believable, authentic examples of this. This is not to say Ollie is without fault. Aside from throwing a rock at the back of a someone’s neck (even if she was fighting the injustice due to Coco), since the death of her mother, she has given up on things she used to do such as being on the softball team. The latter example is her way of dealing with grief, which in itself is valuable for young people to read about  

(f.) I was a hug fan of R.L. Stine when I was younger and read as many Goosebumps books I could get my hands on. Small Spaces is reminiscent of these books with the suspense, and horror, but is more thoughtful, profound and less formulaic. In the following scene, while in the shadow world, Ollie enters the upstairs room of the farmhouse,

“Another floorboard creaked. It took her a moment to realize it wasn’t her. She whirled. Steps. Coming from the darkness at the end of the hall. Soft, steady steps. Ollie froze. A hand appeared on the doorframe. A think, yellow-nailed hand” (Arden, p. 169).

This is suspenseful horror writing. It leaves the reader on the edge of their seat, and terrified. At the same time, though, Arden weaves the grief of the loss of Ollie’s mother into the fabric of the story. This creates a multilayered work that goes beyond its genre.

(g.) I really enjoyed this work and would recommend it to others, such as middle grade readers or reluctant readers. I am very happy that young people today have options like this, that go beyond the Goosebumps story line. Not only is it frightening, but it also crosses into other types of fiction. There is the Narnia-like fantasy of entering a different world, there is the contemporary realism of issues such as bullying and grief, and finally, there is the spot on descriptiveness of the writing. Arden does such a terrific job of painting the setting to the reader through the lens of Ollie’s grief. After the incident in which she throws a rock at Brian’s head, she takes off in her bike,

“Ollie braked her bike. The ground by the road was carpeted with scarlet leaves; sugar maples start losing their leaves before other trees. Ollie kept a running list in her head of sugar maple in Evansburg that didn’t belong to anyone. When the sap ran, she and her mom would-” (Arden, p. 11)

or in the scene, where Ollie, Brian and Coco are in the “shadow world,” Ollie muses,

“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” (Arden, p. 161).


Small Spaces is a multilayered horror novel that is perfectly suited for middle grade readers. With wonderfully detailed imagery, it addresses grief and adolescence while managing to chill the reader with its story. In addition to all these positives, even more impressive is the strength of the protagonist, Ollie. She stands up for what she thinks is just and is a strong female character. This is a perfect addition to any library that serves pre-teen and adolescent readers. The genre, and setting is also makes Small Spaces a perfect addition for Halloween themed displays.


Arden, K. (2018). Small Spaces. ‎ G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers

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