Review: Small Spaces

Small Spaces Small Spaces by Katherine Arden
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

3.5 Stars

Katherine Arden is one of my favorite new authors and I nominated her for a Campbell Award earlier this year for her magnificent subversion of the gender roles in Russian mythology in The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower. She started telling her readers about writing a middle grade story late last year and I was excited to have won a copy in one of her Instagram giveaways this spring.

From the first time I heard the title Small Spaces and read the blurb "Avoid large spaces. Keep to small." I was reminded of one of my all time favorite Japanese fairy tales, "The Boy Who Drew Cats" as translated by Lafcadio Hearn. In that story a young acolyte is sent away from his temple for perpetually drawing cats. When sent on his way, his priest tells him "Avoid large places at night. Keep to small." Hiding overnight in a deserted temple in a nearby village, he remembers the words and after a day of drawing cats all over the walls of the interior, he sleeps inside a small cabinet. In the night his cat drawings save him by coming alive, attacking and killing a rat goblin that had been menacing the temple and village. (And I have to give a shout out the the marvelous retelling of this story, as "The Girl Who Drew Cats" by the late Eugie Foster in The King of Rabbits and Moon Lake.) I'm pretty sure that Katherine Arden knew this story and let its safety warning inspire her own tale.

In Arden's Small Spaces Olivia aka Ollie or Ollie-Pop Adler is a math whiz sixth grader who is still aching over the loss of her mother. She's withdrawn from so many of the activities she enjoyed as a fifth grader in her small Vermont town's school, including chess club and softball. She's stubbornly sticking to her books and her loner ways when strange events result in her stealing (the shock!) a book a mysterious woman was about to throw in the river. (Throwing a book in the water like that was clearly sacrilege, so it's justified theft to Ollie's mind.) The book "Small Spaces" is a cautionary tale, and that tale comes to life during a school field trip to the Misty Valley Farm. Or was that Smoke Hollow Farm. Hmmm. Good question. Oh those creepy Websters! A few hours into the field and Ollie is less certain that "Small Spaces" is fascinating and creepy fiction and more certain that it's a scary autobiography. But how will Ollie will keep her friends Coco and Brian safe when her beloved mom's broken watch mysteriously starts a count down and tells her to RUN in capital letters? Well, after running, you know you're going to have to hide. And you already can guess that small spaces are the safest bet!

This is a fun Halloween story for younger middle graders. Its central characters include Ollie, who is recovering from the loss of her mother, Coco the city girl who moved to the country but who turns out to have more than a few unexpected skills, and Brian, a burgeoning hockey star with a surprising love of Alice in Wonderland. What I love best about the story is its clear message to children that sometimes you need to slow down and look at your peers with a little more open-mindedness to see them clearly and realize they could be great friends.

Arden's first foray into children's fiction was a charmer. I hope she'll continue writing both adult and children's fiction and I'm happy for her that she's now confident about writing two very different books at once. (She was writing this book when she was writing The Winter of the Witch which I cannot WAIT to read!)

I received and ARC from the author in a Giveaway.

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