‘Small Spaces’: a delightfully creepy MG horror series starter

July 18, 2023

TITLE: Small Spaces (Small Spaces, #1)
AUTHOR: Katherine Arden
GENRE: Horror
AGE RANGE: Middle Grade
PAGES: 218pg
PUBLISHER: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers

After suffering a tragic loss, eleven-year-old Ollie only finds solace in books. So when she happens upon a crazed woman at the river threatening to throw a book into the water, Ollie doesn’t think—she just acts, stealing the book and running away. As she begins to read the slender volume, Ollie discovers a chilling story about a girl named Beth, the two brothers who both loved her, and a peculiar deal made with “the smiling man,” a sinister specter who grants your most tightly held wish, but only for the ultimate price.

Ollie is captivated by the tale until her school trip the next day to Smoke Hollow, a local farm with a haunting history all its own. There she stumbles upon the graves of the very people she’s been reading about. Could it be the story about the smiling man is true? Ollie doesn’t have too long to think about the answer to that. On the way home, the school bus breaks down, sending their teacher back to the farm for help. But the strange bus driver has some advice for the kids left behind in his care: “Best get moving. At nightfall they’ll come for the rest of you.” Nightfall is, indeed, fast descending when Ollie’s previously broken digital wristwatch, a keepsake reminder of better times, begins a startling countdown and delivers a terrifying message: RUN.

Only Ollie and two of her classmates heed the bus driver’s warning. As the trio head out into the woods–bordered by a field of scarecrows that seem to be watching them–the bus driver has just one final piece of advice for Ollie and her friends: “Avoid large places. Keep to small.”

And with that, a deliciously creepy and hair-raising adventure begins…

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“When the mist rises, and the smiling man comes walking, you must avoid large places at night. Keep to small.”

I absolutely adored everything about this book and couldn’t get enough of it. Ollie is the most lovable little protagonist and I wanted with my whole heart to reach right into the book, pull her out, and give her a big hug, because she broke my heart time and time again with all of her pain and grief. Despite how hard it hit me whenever she dwelled on her loss, though, this story is first and foremost a horror book, and it excels at the spooky elements, too.

“Best get moving. At nightfall they’ll come for the rest of you.”

I know I’m not alone when I say that scarecrows are kind of creepy all on their own, and a story featuring a moving scarecrow is always going to make my blood chill a little (I blame R.L. Stine and the fact that The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight gave me literal nightmares as a kid!), but I thought these scarecrows were particularly unsettling and I really loved the descriptions of them!

“You might get to know characters in books, Ollie thought, but getting to know a human was an entirely different thing.”

I also adored the “book within a book” element of Small Spaces, which is a risky endeavor in my opinion because it can frequently ruin the immersion of the actual story, but in this case, Katherine Arden pulled it off flawlessly and I was just as invested in the Websters as I was in Ollie and her classmates! Well, almost—it’s hard to compete with precious, soft little Coco and surprisingly clever and kind Brian. There’s so much more than meets the eye with all three of these kiddos, and I loved getting to know them and watching them form the wonderful, adventurous, brave trio I knew they could be.

“You’re kind of grumpy most of the time, but when things get bad, you’re the bravest. People can surprise you.”

I’m so excited to continue the series and to see what terrifying little adventure Ollie is sent on next. I know nothing about the following books aside from their titles and covers, so I’m crossing my fingers that Brian and Coco are involved in the rest of them too, because I am nothing if not a sucker for an MG series with a brave, passionate little friend group going to battle for each other (and everyone else they know, usually). I loved this and can’t recommend it highly enough, and I plan on continuing the series very, VERY soon!

content warnings →
WARNINGS (click to expand):

parent loss, grief, kidnapping, children in danger, ghosts, minor bullying

representation →

Ollie is implied biracial (her mother is described as having brown skin but no specifics are stated), Brian is Jamaican


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More about Destiny @ Howling Libraries

Just a horror aficionado/geek girl trying to juggle motherhood, reading, blogging, gaming, and everyday life.

    1. I read this a while back and don’t remember it at all. I enjoyed it a lot. I do want to continue on with the series. I definitely want to reread this book so I can move on with the series.

    1. Yes!! So happy to see you loving Small Spaces 🥰 I loved how atmospheric this was and the characters grew on me so quickly, I love our trio 😊

    1. I’m so happy you finally read this one! I agree the creepiness took my by surprise when I first read it too and it really hooked me to the series because the stakes are really high!

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