“Wherever you go in this big, gorgeous, hideous world, there is a ghost story waiting for you.”
~ Katherine Arden, Small Spaces ~
Guys, I have a new favourite. When I heard that Katherine Arden, bestselling author of the fabulous The Bear and the Nightingale was making her middle grade debut, I was immediately interested. I have to admit that some of the themes mentioned in the blurb concerned me a little (ie. the idea of grief/loss) but I continued to hear great things and knew that I wanted to try this book for myself even if it broke me. And I’m so glad I picked it up because I absolutely adored it.
Before I tell you why, here’s the blurb for you to read for yourselves…
What the book is about…
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 spectre 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…
What I thought of it…
Guys. This was seriously fantastic. It might be aimed at younger readers but it is so intelligently crafted and might just be my new favourite middle grade.
Ollie is a wonderful protagonist, with a really well-developed personality. From the very first paragraph and the line “you don’t waste October sunshine”, I felt a connection with her. She went on to prove herself as my spirit animal with her love of books and reading. But I also connected with her on a deeper level, due to the loss she has suffered and the grief she is going through. My heart ached for her.
The other characters were also fabulous. I loved Ollie’s dad, who is this awesome crafty guy that bakes way more food than they can ever eat and teaches Ollie to make things and tells bad jokes and just GENUINELY CARES. They live in this funky house called The Egg where all the rooms are painted bright colours and I just want that to be my life, ok?
Then we get Coco. While I loved Ollie’s story arc, I think the author really excelled herself with Coco’s. It broke my heart to see everything that was thrown at her in the beginning but I loved seeing her come into her own and shine.
As for the story, I have already mentioned that it is a fantastic, realistic portrayal of childhood grief with a superb resolution. But it was also genuinely creepy! I know this is a middle grade but I actually felt freaked out by some scenes! I will never look at a scarecrow the same way again. There is a sense of tension that pervades every page; Arden builds this tension masterfully and it never feels forced or clichéd.
Overall, I just really loved this. The characters, the plot, the way it was written were all outstanding and I would definitely recommend fitting this in before October ends if you can!
Has anyone else read this one? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Leave me a comment below and let’s chat 🙂 x