A girl steals a book and is swept up in its eerie origins.
It’s October in East Evansburg, Vermont, and Olivia “Ollie” Adler finds herself distracted from her sixth-grade lessons. She’s reeling from the pain of her mother’s absence, but she’d rather bottle it up than talk about it. Instead, Ollie escapes into books and reads them at her secret swimming hole. One day, a strange woman attempts to cast a book titled Small Spaces into the water. Ollie steals the book and is given a warning: “Avoid large places at night.…Keep to small.” Soon she is wrapped up in the book’s haunting story of loss and a deal made with a being known as “the smiling man.” A class field trip to Misty Valley Farm reveals the truth behind Small Spaces. Can Ollie save her classmates from the smiling man? Or will she, too, succumb to the lure of one of his bargains? The characters are sharply drawn, particularly Ollie and her quirky, bighearted father; one secondary character, black, Jamaican-born Brian, stands out in their mostly white community. The slow reveal of Ollie’s trauma is achingly poignant (her mother’s death isn’t confirmed until nearly halfway through the book). Some elements seem less plausible than others (her teacher leaving kids alone with a creepy bus driver, for instance), but novelist for adults Arden’s (The Bear and the Nightingale, 2017) middle-grade debut is atmospheric horror at its best.
Under a cloud of suspicion after the death of his best friend, a boy with a “trifecta of troubles” continues as best he can.
Lt. Baird is sure seventh-grader Mason Buttle knows more about the death of Benny Kilmartin than the story he’s told over and over. Now he’s writing it, with the help of speech-recognition software in the school social worker’s office (a process that is reproduced with unlikely accuracy). In a moving first-person narrative, Connor reveals a remarkably distinct and memorable character. Loyal and good-natured, Mason is large for his age, highly dyslexic, abnormally sweaty, and the regular target of bullying neighbor boys. He feels his emotions as colors—green for stress, shades of pink for happiness. There hasn’t been much pink in Mason’s life in the 16 months since Benny’s accidental death, but now there’s a new friend, tiny Calvin Chumsky, and the bullying neighbor’s dog, Moonie, who prefers Mason. Using Mason’s conversations with the detective and his voice-to-text storytelling, the author weaves the back story into a narrative of redemption chronicling his growing friendships. The climactic revelation reveals the gaps in everyone’s understanding of the event and propels his struggling, white, apple-farming family—grandmother, unemployed uncle, and the stray, shopping-addicted young woman his uncle brought home—to make some needed changes.
Connor’s gift for creating complex characters extends to the supporting characters and makes this a compelling read.
Set in 1978 in Newfoundland, Canada, this middle-grade novel weaves together a family history and a curse.
Twelve-year-old Ruth grew up in Toronto when she wasn’t traveling with her botanist father, but she is spending this summer in Newfoundland with her aunt Doll—a relative she doesn’t know—while her father and new stepmother travel. Sleeping uneasily on her first night, Ruth awakens to see a girl holding a candle get into the bed opposite her own. She assumes it is Ruby, her cousin whom she has never met, who will also be staying at Aunt Doll’s for the summer. But in the morning, the girl is gone, and Doll tells her that Ruby is coming later that day. This is the intriguing beginning of an engrossing tale at whose core is a feud between two families, the Barretts and the Finns, who sailed to Newfoundland from Ireland in 1832—and a curse that affects the female blonde, blue-eyed twins of each generation of Finns. When Ruth and Ruby meet, they are struck by their identical physical features, including blonde hair and blue eyes, and when Ruth begins having strange visions, the girls delve deeper into a generations-old secret. Cotter’s complex and engrossing story is enhanced by its superbly presented isolated Newfoundland setting and a satisfying dose of ghosts. The theme—the power of words—creates both a fascinating conclusion and food for thought. The book assumes a white default.
Stuey and his best friend, Elly Rose, both 9, share a birthday and love of the wild woods until a discovery rips them apart, landing each in a world from which the other has disappeared.
Before he died, Gramps, Stuey’s grandfather, showed him where the woods have overgrown the swanky, country-club golf course Stuey’s white great-grandfather, a former bootlegger, built. He disappeared there long ago, while embroiled in an argument with the Jewish district attorney investigating him, their mutual hatred fueled by anti-Semitism and class bias. Stuey lives in the old family home with his artist mother, who’s opposed to selling the woods to a developer. He meets Elly Rose when her family, new arrivals, invites them over. Like Stuey, she’s explored the woods, discovering a hollow clump of dead trees, the deadfall, where each has heard voices whispering. The two steal away to the woods, spin stories, and grow a unique friendship. They’re soul mates. But when Stuey shares an ugly secret that touches both families, Elly Rose vanishes and his world changes: Once allies, her bereaved parents now support leveling the woods. Without Stuey, Elly Rose’s world changes for the worse, too. Each longs to reconnect, but how? Shy Stuey and just-short-of-bossy Elly Rose are likable, their friendship believable and moving. Infused with the magic of the unknown, the eerie wilderness entices them, and readers, inside.
An intensely atmospheric ghost story and elegy for a vanished world: spellbinding.
(Paranormal adventure. 8-12)
Summer is off to a terrible start for 12-year old African-American Candice Miller.
Six months after her parents’ divorce, Candice and her mother leave Atlanta to spend the summer in Lambert, South Carolina, at her grandmother’s old house. When her grandmother Abigail passed two years ago, in 2015, Candice and her mother struggled to move on. Now, without any friends, a computer, cellphone, or her grandmother, Candice suffers immense loneliness and boredom. When she starts rummaging through the attic and stumbles upon a box of her grandmother’s belongings, she discovers an old letter that details a mysterious fortune buried in Lambert and that asks Abigail to find the treasure. After Candice befriends the shy, bookish African-American kid next door, 11-year-old Brandon Jones, the pair set off investigating the clues. Each new revelation uncovers a long history of racism and tension in the small town and how one family threatened the black/white status quo. Johnson’s latest novel holds racism firmly in the light. Candice and Brandon discover the joys and terrors of the reality of being African-American in the 1950s. Without sugarcoating facts or dousing it in post-racial varnish, the narrative lets the children absorb and reflect on their shared history. The town of Lambert brims with intrigue, keeping readers entranced until the very last page.
A candid and powerful reckoning of history.
(Historical mystery. 8-12)