Small Spaces by Katherine Arden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I love horror. Horror for children is tricky -- I've read my fair share that are "meh."
This is the opposite of meh. It is both wonderfully creepy and scary, and also perfect for the intended audience. It doesn't speak down to them; it doesn't go too far; it goes far.
So, Ollie has had a horrible year and is now pretty anti-social, retreating to books. Because of the Horrible Thing, most of the adults around her do their best to give her space. One thing she does is retreat into books, and one of her most recent books, acquired in a bit of a weird way (some lady was going to throw it away and Ollie rescued/stole it), has an odd story from long ago, about a woman, two brothers, and a strange deal with "the smiling man" to return someone from the dead.
The sixth grade goes on a field trip to a local farm. (As a funny aside, it's a working farm that is more tourist attraction than an actual farm -- it makes money from tours, from folks from the city who want to milk a real! live! cow!) Ollie sees coincidences between the farm and the book: descriptions and names. And the owner of the farm? The lady who was trying to get rid of the book.
Ollie is relieved when they all get back on the bus to go home. She's especially glad to get away from the scarecrows -- all the creepy scarecrows.
But then the bus breaks down. And the bus driver gives Ollie a weird warning. And no one's cell phones work. And her broken watch starts working -- except now it's a countdown, with a warning: RUN.
Only Ollie and two others follow that warning. When they get off the bus, they realize that everything looks - wrong. It's wronger than the can imagine.
OK, I don't want to go more without spoilers, but I'll just say: Creepy scarecrows!! Kids who take initiative. But -- in terms of what makes this middle grade, even aside from the ages of the main characters -- it's about family and creating family and returning to family. Ollie's father is amazing (he bakes! he cooks! he's understanding yet not indulgent!). Her mother was pretty special, also (but, spoilers.) It's also about making friends - not romance, but friends.
I also love all the details that create the setting, especially when talking about things the "country kids" like Ollie know (the right clothes to wear in New England in the fall).
Intended audience: with the main characters in 6th grade, I'd recommend this for 3rd to 8th grade. (Yes, not all 8th graders "read up" and want to read YA that is all sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll.) As an adult reader, who has read many a scary book and watched many a scary movie, I suspected the truth about a character or two, but that doesn't take away from the story.
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