Heavy Medal Finalist: SMALL SPACES by Katherine Arden
SMALL SPACES is intricately crafted. In just the first chapter, so much groundwork is laid, in ways that are completely necessary to the story, not just thrown in to serve later needs. It starts with Ollie daydreaming about monsters attacking and getting her out of math class, which is such subtle foreshadowing that it’s only noticeable in hindsight. We get a strong sense of Ollie—her smarts, her stubbornness. Mysteries are raised—why doesn’t she want to be in advanced math? Why has she dropped out of the chess club? Why doesn’t she like sympathy? Then we get the interpersonal inciting incident, when she throws the rock at Brian’s head in defense of Coco. This leads to her involvement with each of them and demonstrates her throwing skill, which becomes important later. And it shows us the core of her character, that she’s basically a knight, brave and noble, sticking up for the weak, even when she thinks they’re annoying. And all of this in the first chapter!
Throughout the first half, we get hints about her mother’s death. A lesser author would have dumped a bunch of backstory in that first chapter, but Arden knows to use the mystery, building interest and showing how Ollie is feeling—we only get little snatches because she won’t even let herself think about it too much.
Even the food is well-integrated. The huge lunch Dad packs and Ollie reluctantly accepts (pg. 43) develops their relationship, and the list of included foods seems like a cozy touch of atmosphere. But then later all of that food becomes an essential part of their survival and also what Ollie uses to get information out of the bus driver/hound.
The sentence-level writing is excellent, with touches of well-observed humor: “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.” (pg. 1) or “Ollie, not being part walrus, did not like bad weather.” (pg. 61) And strong imagery: “Thick, surprising sunbeams slanted through the clouds.” (pg. 67) and “It was witch-soul dark.” (pg. 178) Arden is particularly good at using imagery to create atmosphere: “The bus squatted in the middle of the wet parking lot like a prehistoric swamp monster, the two golden eyes of its headlights gleaming out through the fog.” (pg. 60) Besides being a great simile, this creates an atmosphere of spookiness and sense of unease before we know concretely that anything is wrong. There’s a strong sense of place and season and the autumnal atmospheric details are also important to the story (the rain/mist, the scarecrows).
Arden is good at creating suspense through both mystery and action. In the first half, in the contemporary plot-line we get progressively strengthening hints of creepiness. At the same time, the book excerpts build suspense. The historical story is creepy and spooky, especially as it begins to be clear it is connected to real life. Ollie’s reading is constantly interrupted, which creates cliff-hangers. Like her, we are eager to get back to the story and find out what happens next. This plot line plays with Ollie’s love of reading, suggesting that losing yourself in a book is powerful but not always healthy, since the book seems at times to be enchanting her. Ollie has been using books as good coping tools, but also as a way to avoid her feelings and human interaction (pg. 109). But, in the end, the knowledge from the book and the physical book itself save her.
In the second half, the scarecrows are genuinely scary and this section is suspenseful and the action is well-written. The watch provides the additional suspense of a countdown.
The two main character-based plots are Ollie coming to terms with her mother’s death and the developing friendship with Coco. Neither bog down the action of the central plot, instead intertwining with it in natural ways. Sparkly, squeaky city girl Coco turns out to be stronger emotionally and physically (climbing) than Ollie expects. Coco helps Ollie conquer her fear of heights and cry for the first time since her mother’s death. Learning to see Coco in a new way also helps Ollie see herself in a new way and to reevaluate what makes someone strong. “Coco didn’t cry because she was weak. Coco cried because she felt things. Ollie never cried because she didn’t feel things.” (pg. 161)
Arden plays fair—the evil is constrained by rules, so there is a way to defeat it. The scarecrows can’t move during the day, which provides lulls and peaks in the action and suspense. And, in the end, Ollie is able to defeat the smiling man because she is clever, because she is strong enough to resist temptation and sacrifice what she wants most, and because she has worked through her grief enough to realize her mother is still with her. It’s particularly satisfying that she is smart enough to trick the Smiling Man into telling her how to escape and use his own rules against him.
Introduction by Katrina
Discussion of SMALL SPACES now continues in the comments below. As always, please start by limiting comments to positive aspects of the book. All points of view, including questions and concerns, can be added to the discussion any time after 12:00 noon (EST).
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About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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