Vermont is a place where the boundaries between past and present are porous. And at no time is that more evident than in autumn, when ghosts are on everyone’s mind.
“One fun thing about Vermont is that you can be running through the woods and just stumble over a random graveyard,” says Katherine Arden, who lives near Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest. “They’re everywhere, and there’s a very powerful sense of history because people have been farming this part of the country since the 1700s.”
Arden’s name may be familiar to adult readers who are fans of her novel The Bear and the Nightingale and its sequels in the Winternight trilogy (the finale is set to publish next year), set in a magic-infused version of medieval Russia. Her first middle grade novel, Small Spaces, is similarly epic in scope, but it is also deeply imbued with the landscape and traditions of Vermont. “I had so much fun filling the novel with the things I see every fall near my home,” she says. “Corn mazes, scarecrows, haunted houses—these are part of the fall landscape here.”
Small Spaces opens when 11-year-old Olivia (Ollie), a book lover who’s recently lost her mom, comes into possession of a mysterious old book, also titled Small Spaces. As Ollie reads the creepy old story of a family torn apart by loss and regret, she begins to recognize references to local names and places. Readers may begin to see other connections between Ollie’s life and the ominous scenes that play out in the book. “A strange and disturbing family history offers a parallel to Ollie’s own experience of dealing with loss and gives a weight and perspective to her journey,” Arden notes. “History does teach us things, especially if you read it seriously and intentionally—and Ollie learns to make different choices than a previous generation did.”
But those lessons are hard won, especially during Ollie’s class field trip to a local farm. She starts to suspect that something is very wrong, especially when their school bus breaks down as a dense fog descends. And are those scarecrows getting closer?
Ollie decides to strike out on her own instead of waiting for trouble to catch up with her. Arden suggests that Ollie’s bravery comes partly out of her experience with loss and grief after the death of her mom: “Ollie’s loss makes her feel so separate from her classmates. They don’t understand what she’s been through, and so she no longer cares what they think. She’s able to make decisions and take actions independent of her classmates, which is something that’s very hard for a middle schooler.”
Ollie isn’t alone in her journey, as she is reluctantly accompanied by her new friends Brian and Coco. Like Ollie, Arden enjoys breaking down middle school stereotypes, or “boxes,” in the characters she’s created. “I wanted to come up with characters who aren’t so easily defined,” Arden says. “I also wanted to change how boy-girl friendships are depicted. In books, so many kid trios are two boys and a girl. I wanted the guy to be the odd person out.”
Without giving too much away, Ollie, Brian and Coco are in for more than a little horror as they flee for their lives and eventually try to make a bargain that will save their classmates. Readers are likely to find Small Spaces to be the kind of book that will, as Arden suggests, “make them scared to get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.”
“Even if things are ominous, as long as they resolve in a way that’s uplifting and satisfying, I don’t really feel like I have to restrain myself.”
So how scary is too scary when it comes to spooky stories for young readers? “It’s great to read scary books when you’re young,” Arden says. “It’s a way to deal with fears in a safe environment. It’s kind of fun to be that afraid, and to know that you can always close the book.”
Other than ensuring that she didn’t paint any truly gruesome scenes or disturbing images, Arden didn’t hold herself back when it came to creating a terrifying mood. “Tension and dread are fine—the problem [is] if you make it not be OK at the end,” she says. “Even if things are ominous, as long as they resolve in a way that’s uplifting and satisfying, I don’t really feel like I have to restrain myself in the narrative. It’s a safe fear.”
Arden says she enjoyed incorporating elements of some of her favorite books into Small Spaces, from subtle nods to portal fantasies like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Narnia to a Japanese folktale called “The Boy Who Drew Cats,” which provided direct inspiration for the repeated advice in the novel: “Avoid large places at night . . . keep to small.” Like Ollie, Arden admits she was a voracious reader from a young age. “I remember that feeling of the real world just not existing while I was in the pages of a book,” she says.
With the novel’s condensed time frame, Vermont setting and young characters, the writing process of Small Spaces presented a different set of challenges to Arden than she’s previously faced—differences that helped her grow as a writer. “Writing this book was pleasurable,” she says. “Changing pacing, tone, mood, everything—it helps keep you fresh as a writer, and it can be inspiring, giving you scope to play with ideas you might not otherwise have a chance to explore.”
It’s lucky for readers that Arden enjoyed her first foray into middle grade horror, because Small Spaces is the first in a quartet that will continue the stories of Ollie, Coco and Brian. Each book will be tied to a different season and to different iconic locations in Vermont. Small Spaces is the fall book, of course, and the winter book (which Arden is writing now) is set at a “down at the heels” ski resort that happens to be haunted.
Arden won’t say much about what happens next, except that “mayhem ensues.” In the meantime, Small Spaces is sure to provide plenty of shivers of its own.
Author photo by Deverie Crystal Photography.