Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Finalist: SMALL SPACES by Katherine Arden

smallspacesSMALL 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).

Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. 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


  1. samuel leopold says:

    Excellent introduction, Katrina!
    I am ashamed to say that I turned away from this book many times because of the cover. The creepy scarecrow kept me away. There is an irrelevant story attached to that comment. But, for purposes of this discussion I will stay on task. So, I listened to a friend recently who, quoting Mary Poppins, said
    “a cover is nice
    But a cover is not the book.”
    Thus, I opened up to chapter one……What an amazing beginning to this story! I had a small list of things to say about that first chapter….but Katrina eloquently covered every point I was going to make. By the beginning of chapter two, I had a wonderfully vivid picture of the setting painted in my mind. And I felt like I had known the main characters all my life and was already rooting for them.

    I have read many books where the beginning is fantastic, but then, like a car running out of gas, the story slows down from there. Not so with this novel. The plot and pacing are perfectly constructed so that I never lost interest or felt that story elements were contrived or not authentic.

    The creepy scarecrows were not too crazy, but still scary enough that I felt they were real. At one point I almost asked my neighbor to turn his farm scarecrow away from facing my backyard. But I resisted. My point there is that I read a lot of books and it is very rare for any of them to actually effect my “real-world thinking.” For that to happen inside a reader, the author must have a master’s skill of intertwining the worlds of effective realism and imagery in her writing. And the author has done that with this book. There are two books that have done that for me this year—Hey Kiddo and Small Spaces.

    And ,finally, I cannot help but fall in love with the character of Ollie. Part of it is the wonderful way the author develops that character. And part of it is because I am still going through the painful process of coming to terms with my mother’s death. I have read other novels which discuss the main character losing a parent—-but most of the stories I have read do not deal with that issue in a realistic, genuine way. It is as if Catherine Arden has spent a few days living inside of the hearts of those who have lost loved ones. And, while living there, soaked up the emotions and thoughts of those who are going through that process. Any young reader—-or adult for that matter—-who has lost someone they loved will be touched by Ollie.

    And Coco is just as strong a character. But I cannot think of what to add about Coco that Katrina has not already stated.

    Small spaces is definitely distinguished and definitely a strong contender for this year’s award.

    • Yay! I laughed out loud at your reaction to your neighbor’s scarecrows–that’s awesome!

      I’m so sorry about your mom. I thought Arden did a good job writing about grief, but I don’t have that particular experience myself, so I’m glad to hear that it rings true to you.

      • samuel leopold says:

        Thanks Katrina. I miss her a lot. And this Newbery Discussion has been very therapeutic.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed the pacing and tone of this book. It was creepy without being terrifying, and moved along swiftly with plenty of chilling descriptions. The bus driver’s smile will linger in my memory for quite some time.

    I also liked how distinctive the three principal characters were, and how Ollie is kinda unlikeable but it’s hard not rooting for her. The foreshadowing was also clever – I totally didn’t suspect that the farmhand would be the Smiling Man.

    • Well Joe, someone didn’t read enough Nancy Drew in his youth. Not to brag, but to brag, I outed the sexy farmhand as soon as he offered his kindhearted intervention between Ollie and the bus driver. Obviously the perp.

      But completely agree that this book was a blast. My students and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Heavy Medal for listing it. I purchased the audio immediately for myself. A few chapters in I ordered a copy for school, after the first book-talk and ensuing hold queue, I ordered another. I’m in the process of genrefying our fiction. I get a little thrill every time label a book as horror. I’m overwhelmed with the request, “Mrs. Leu, where are the scary books?” I will be so happy when I can just point. This book will bring chills to my little thrill-seekers for years to come.

      Not sure where I come down on criteria. Loved the visuals of the scarecrow army and the ultimate showdown in the maze.

      • sarahbtlibrarian says:

        Another fellow chicken here! I can’t handle scary books but I really enjoyed this one. As as Kari said, I’m glad I read it after Halloween! The scene with Cathy was the most terrifying for me too. The pacing in this book was so well done and just enough creepiness to keep you going without being so over the top you were too scared to read. The setting, the pacing, the mystery of the book unfolding to the scary story on the farm-it was all just right and didn’t creep me out…..too much. 🙂

    • I have to disagree with you – when they were in the house and all the scarecrows could be seen out the windows, I WAS TERRIFIED. 😂 (I am a noted chicken when it comes to scary things and I am thrilled that this book exists as something terrifying and yet appropriate for their age.) I was glad I read it after Halloween so the scarecrow decorations were mostly gone.

      Katrina covered it so well – the slow unfolding of information and the spooky setting that got really scary really quickly made this a great read.

      • This was the scariest part for me as well. The suspense during their encounter with Cathy in the cabin and the two scarecrow boys watching through the windows was the best moment of the book.

      • I am also such a chicken when it comes to anything scary, so I’m glad this book was on the list or I never would’ve picked it up. The pacing and the language…I could hear the suspenseful music the whole time I was reading.

  3. samuel leopold says:

    Joe…. you are right….the revelation of the Smiling Man was unexpected—but very effective.

    • Ugh… I actually did not think this was surprising. I figured the smiling man had to be someone we’d been introduced to and knew the bus driver was too obvious a choice. Seth, from the moment we met him, made perfect sense to me.

      For the record, I don’t normally predict these types of things correctly. Took away some fun, but I don’t think the intended audience will see that coming at all!

  4. Am I the only one who felt this book was a big ” ho-hum”?
    I didn’t care much about the characters ( well, I guess I liked the dad) The history/ mystery didn’t grab me, the horror didn’t feel scary… the ghost just seemed so sad. The resolution at the end felt forced. Why did people like this so much?

    • I think for a “horror” story, this had a lot of distinctive elements to it. Pretty good sentence level writing, as Katrina pointed out in her introduction. Ollie’s character arc, dealing with her mother’s death, made for more of a complex story than your typical MG Horror fare. And it had pretty good supporting characters (Ollie’s father, Coco, and Brian).

      I will say, once the initial scare by the scarecrows, I didn’t find the rest as scary. I thought the “small spaces” idea wasn’t as developed as it could have been and I thought the plot was structured in a way that made the horror less suspenseful. They don’t go to the farm until almost the half way point of the book. I think the first half could have been condensed some and the second half could have been drawn out a bit more, with a few more scares added in, for full effect.

      And I also didn’t understand why the author was hiding the fact that Ollie’s mother passed away. Why she was going to pains to mention it in the text… It didn’t make sense to me because it was obvious that she was no longer with them and that Ollie was dealing with her grief. Coco was the first person to mention Ollie’s mother’s death in the text and it came at nearly the halfway point of the story. If that was how you were going to reveal it, what was the point in hiding it but not hiding it (because it was so easily inferred?) This didn’t seem like a SNOW LANE type of avoidance thing. That could have made sense if it was played off differently, but Ollie seems VERY aware of her grief. I just thought it was an odd authorial choice.

      • Mary Zdrojewski says:

        I agree that after the initial scare, the scarecrows were not so bad, and this is coming from a reader who is absolutely terrified of scarecrows! There were so many limitations on them that, after the first night, they didn’t seem as dangerous. They can’t do anything before nightfall, they can’t climb, they can’t grab — what can they do? So the terror that should have been building throughout the book peaked that first night when they scrambled into the cave.

    • I only gave this book three stars on Goodreads. Though I liked aspects of it, I would agree that a lot of it was, as you put it, “ho-hum”. Though I found parts of the book chilling – like the smiling bus driver – this book was not even remotely scary, and I felt the author could have capitalized on the “small spaces” aspect. To my remembering, there’s only one night where the characters really had to stick to small spaces.

      Also, I found the descriptions incredibly confusing. When Ollie, Coco, and Brian first have to hide, I couldn’t picture the rock (cave?) they had to hide in. I don’t know if I missed something, but the description of the hiding place just didn’t work. The maze was also a bit confounding to me, and I found the scarecrows vaguely menacing, but not particularly scary.

      FWIW, I also didn’t like that Ollie’s mother was communicating through a watch – it felt a little trite to me, though it worked with the theme of the book.

      • Scary horror stories for kids have to be hard to write. Such a fine line to balance. Can’t make it so scary, but not scary enough and it’s “ho hum” and corny. I thought this was an amicable effort at scary for kids.

  5. As Katrina pointed out, I think the author did an excellent job making Ollie’s grief central to her story and character without making it overwhelming, or her only character trait. All of the characters here were multi-faceted, with hidden depths.

    I know Katrina already highlighted it in the intro, but I just have to add how much I loved that line about Coco crying because she felt things.

    There were a ton of typos and editing issues – is that the sort of thing that can sink a book, or are they looked over as just minor peccadilloes? One actual continuity error that I spotted was that in the epilogue it says “that day and night” but it was three days and nights: hree nights and three days: the first day in the woods, followed by sleeping in a cave, the second day finding the farmhouse and sleeping in the hayloft, then an entire day of traveling through the corn maze and meeting with the smiling man just as it got dark, and a night of walking so that they arrive in the real world at sunrise. Maybe time bent so that for the real world it was only a day and night, but the subjective experience of the kids was different.

  6. For me, this was pure fun. It was nice to have a well-done “scary” book to hand to kids who ask for those. I didn’t find anything distinctive or remarkable about the story. Not my favorite, though I did appreciate how thoughtfully the grief portions of the plot were placed.

    • Agree– good scariness level for kids and grief was done well. But not very distinctive nor distinguished.

    • Courtney Hague says:

      I agree. I think it was well-done but not particularly remarkable. I also appreciated how thoughtfully the grief portions were utilized.

  7. Leonard Kim says:

    In last year’s Mock Discussion, I did a 180 on I’m Just No Good at Rhyming. At first I thought it had too many conventional literary flaws to be a contender. But at some point I looked at a list of “all-time great comedy movies” and realized they all had similar defects. I didn’t love SMALL SPACES, but I wonder if I could be similarly swayed after examining genre-specific standards. As Mr. H points out, the horror genre is problematic for children, because you can’t traumatize them in the fashion of “grown-up” horror. You can’t really kill off people, and you need a happy ending, so you have to do this balancing act which may well make your book seem less distinguished, more “ho-hum”, than it deserves.

    I think SMALL SPACES did come up with an effective solution to the “don’t kill kids” issue by substituting the scarecrow transformation, basically turning this into a zombie movie. This solution has an effective, visceral creepiness (as a child, I’m sure I would have found it unbearably terrifying imagining being turned into a scarecrow) and allows for everyone to be turned back in the end.

    In the “action” scenes, I agree it’s challenging to make the reader feel the protagonists are in any real danger (remember, kid’s book) and this is a general problem for kid’s horror. Since I’m not on the committee, I’ll use a past example: Auxier’s The Night Gardener, which is wonderfully suspenseful until the boogeyman is revealed and starts chasing people around. After that, what should be exciting just isn’t, because you know nothing bad can happen. (I think to a small extent, SWEEP has this problem.)

    Given this problem, I think Arden made some smart choices by using the enforced daytime lulls both to create anticipation/tension and to engage the reader in trying to figure out along with the characters and a ticking clock what the plan is going to be given the “horror rules” that have been established. Similarly, the resolution of the final temptation isn’t ever in doubt – you know what choice will be made – but the difficulty of the dilemma should still appeal to younger readers. In the end, I think Arden definitely did some good things to address typical genre issues and wrote an effective book. I don’t know that’s enough.

    What does a Newbery horror book look like? People on Heavy Medal liked McNeal’s Far Far Away, but I thought it was too old, and I now realize it’s partly because McNeal more or less dispensed with the balancing act and wrote an actual horror book with an actual mass murderer. My favorite in recent years was Starmer’s The Riverman, but that was able to skirt the issues by ending on a cliffhanger (and I found the subsequent books disappointing.) So I’m left with Splendors and Gloom (a little reminiscent of SMALL SPACES in that a character is turned into a puppet) but I think that one’s a great model.

    • To be more clear, I didn’t mean “ho hum” not scary enough, I meant “ho hum” I wasn’t excited to keep reading, didn’t find the characters compelling, didn’t find anything particularly remarkable about the book.

    • samuel leopold says:

      Splendors and Gloom is one of the best HONOR books ever!!!! Sweep is a couple notches below that level of quality. But…..the real question is how does it stack up compared to this year’s contenders? And, I could see it grabbing a silver…….but not the gold.

  8. I’m torn on this one, because it’s a book that I know I would have loved wholeheartedly when I was a kid. It’s exactly the sort of thing I loved, a scary store that also has a heart, and isn’t just a bunch of jump scares. But as an adult, who has read many other horror books, I could see a lot of the beats coming – as many have pointed out, I called several of the “surprises” ahead of time, though I also think the intended audience, with much less genre experience, would not have done so. So the book didn’t do anything substantially new with the tropes of the genre ….but then again, do any of our realistic fiction books do “new” things with realistic fiction tropes? Is it unfair to genre fiction to want paradigm shifting to be distinguished?

    • Alys, this is an excellent point and one I hadn’t considered. I also would have loved this as a kid and as I mentioned before, I’m so glad to have it as an option. We get so many requests for “scary” books and most aren’t of the best quality. This is a gem in that genre.

    • Exactly–I don’t know why genre fiction always has to do something unusual to be considered distinguished, when realistic or historical fiction doesn’t. It seems to me that being effective at being fun or scary is just as much of an achievement as being effective at being sad.

    • Great questions Alys!

    • Courtney Hague says:

      That is definitely something to think about, Alys. Are we holding horror novels (and other genre fiction) to a different standard than realistic fiction because the tropes and conventions are much more narrowly defined? Is it because it’s more apparent when horror novels (or other genre fiction) stray outside of those conventions?

  9. Deborah Ford says:

    This was far and away one of my favorites. Like some of you, I was hooked in the first chapter. And reading the part (aloud) where she finds the book nearly in the creek, is magical. Like Auxier says on the back, I dare you to read the first two chapters and not stay up all night. I talk about that book practically every week and on every re-reading, I stay up late to finish–and I know how it ends. Clever plot twists, scary-but not to much, excellent pacing. Love.

Speak Your Mind