“Well, if we have disappeared, can we assume that this place is – somewhere else? Like a horrible sort of Narnia? Not our world at all?”

I devoured Small Spaces by Katherine Arden in a single day, and I think some of the eerie scarecrow imagery seeped into my dreams that night. Weirdly, this just happened to be another book-within-a-book example like the last post.

Ollie (short for Olivia), 11, is set apart by the recent tragic loss of her mother, and her behavior since has only further alienated her from her classmates. One day she comes across a lady about to throw an old book (called, of course, Small Spaces) into a creek and impulsively steals it before it can be destroyed – a decision that seems to doom her but actually is the key to her survival. In this book she reads the apparently true story of a family that was granted a miracle – with a terrible price – by an entity only referred to as the Smiling Man.

The next day she discovers that the school field trip to a local farm intersects with this strange and sinister history lesson. When their bus breaks down and Ollie receives disturbing warnings from both the freakish bus driver and her broken digital watch, she decides to take matters into her own hands and escapes to the forest, with two classmates in tow as unlikely companions. They are quickly surrounded and pursued by animate but voiceless scarecrows all seemingly in thrall to the same Smiling Man, and it appears that they have stumbled into some kind of parallel otherworld (which they amusingly keep calling “Bad Narnia”).

The other students on the bus have been captured by the Adversary, and Ollie must use all her cleverness and bravery (and information from her useful book) to rescue them and make it back home to her own world with her companions. This journey culminates in a dangerous corn maze where she loses her friends, makes a bargain with one of the Adversary’s minions, and eventually uncovers the true identity of the Smiling Man. In the final confrontation, he preys on her deepest desires to tempt her to his side but she stays strong. She exposes a fraud, tricks her Adversary, and uncovers the key to breaking the spell.