Tween Book Club: Small Spaces

I love me a spooky story. Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series was my jam as a kid. Are You Afraid of the Dark? was my idea of a perfect Saturday night. Despite the fact that I was a Generally Anxious Child, who sometimes still cried from fear of the dark well into teenagehood, I loved anything with that creep factor and my Ouija board was well used.

Weirdly, I absolutely loathe scary stories and movies made for adults. They’re too dark for me, and they usually paint humanity in a depressing, fetid light. Which is why when I want my spooky fix, I stick to middle grade! Scary middle grade books, even those marketed as horror, usually have an uplifting ending where good conquers all, which is exactly what I need as a grown-up who knows that doesn’t always (or even often) happen in real life.

All of this is to say that I was excited to bring out the spooky for our October book club meeting. We read and discussed Katherine Arden’s Small Spaces, described by R. L. Stine himself as “terrifying and fun!”

The sequel, Dead Voices, is also A Winner, though you should read Small Spaces first.

Here’s the short description I used for our marketing:

“After eleven-year-old Ollie’s school bus mysteriously breaks down on a field trip, she has to take a trip through the woods to rescue her classmates from a mysterious man who controls the town’s scarecrows.”

The Nitty-Gritty:

Number of kids: We’ve settled into a regular group of about 12, and every month we have 2 or 3 new kids who join us from the previous month’s waitlist.

Age range: Grades 4-6

Format: We spent the first 30 minutes discussing the book, and then the next 30 minutes doing a related activity (marble mazes!)

Cost: About $150. We give out a free copy of the book to each attendee. I really wanted to do this book, even though at almost $8.00/paperback it was more expensive then others I’ve chosen. We had all the supplies on hand for our activity, so my only other cost was for a bunch of Cuties to feed my kiddos.

The Book Discussion

This has absolutely been the biggest hit I’ve had in awhile. Every kid who attended was effervescent in their praise of the book (and half of them had put the sequel on hold before we even met).

Some (non-spoilery) discussion questions I had ready to go included:

  1. Did you think this book was scary? Why do you think people like to be scared for fun?
  2. Ollie puts herself in danger trying to save her classmates, even after some of them have been real bullies. Why do you think she does that? What would you do if you were her?
  3. Ollie’s adventure starts when she steals a book so that the strange woman she encounters can’t destroy it in a riverbank. Ollie thinks that no matter what, no one should destroy a book. Do you think Ollie did the right thing?
  4. Ollie and her friends are very different from each other. Do you think you and your friends have a lot in common, or are you very different?

The Activity: Marble Mazes!

As it turns out, I cannot draw scarecrows well.

Without giving too much away, a maze plays a big part in the denouement of the novel. We made our own marble mazes – a slightly STEMy activity because it requires students to plan and build a design, and then use some experimentation to make sure their design suceeds.

Materials Used Per Child:

  • 1 paper plate
  • 1 marble
  • Straws (we have tons of these in our supply closet, but if your library has stopped using this kind of disposable plastic you could also use play-doh, popsicle sticks, or recycled pieces like cardboard and milk cartons)
  • Tape and scissors
  • Markers for decorating

How to Make a Marble Maze:

The instructions for this one are really easy. Your paper plate is your building space. Plan one end to be your entrance, the other your exit. Then, use your supplies to build a raised path with plenty of dead ends (we also drew scarecrows on ours, because they feature heavily in the novel). When you’re done, your task is to guide your marble through the maze without letting it fall out.

Making these mazes had an interesting side effect that I hadn’t thought about in advance. Several of the kiddos in my book club are pretty mischevious – they’re very peer-conscious right now, and so they will do a lot to make each other laugh and/or try to one-up each other. At the same time, they haven’t yet developed the ability to fully evaluate the consequences of their actions.

Which led to all of my extra marbles mysteriously disappearing at the end of our program. Though I had admonished them all to only take one each, while I was busy signing kids up for our next meeting, some of my kiddos had squirreled away handful of marbles, encouraging one another, and tried to make off with them.

I say “tried,” because… remember that “can’t yet evaluate the consequences of their actions” problem? As they tried to sneak away through the library with pockets full of elicit marbles, I could hear the loud rattle of marbles bouncing around as they scurried away.

Full House Sigh GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
Remember you love working with tweens and cannot yeet them out the window.

As I tracked down each culprit, I asked them if they had anything they felt like they should return to me, and everyone forked over their ill-gotten gains. This gave us an opportunity to talk about how the library only has so much money for supplies, and if someone takes more than their fair share, the library can’t afford to keep doing cool stuff like book club. I was surprised to discover that the kids believed their parents had paid for them to come to book club (not that this would have made stealing supplies okay, but it showed that they didn’t have an understanding of how the library works).

I view these kinds of shenanigans as part of a developmentally-appropriate learning experience for tweens. Each of my criminals apologized, and they all still come to book club, where we’re still good friends (though I keep a little closer accounting on my supplies now). I think part of working with this age group is realizing that sometimes their growing brains are going to cause them to make mistakes that aren’t really about us, and to help them learn and move forward from those mistakes instead of issuing punishment.

What’s up next?

That would be our November book, the (unbeknownst to us at the time) 2020 Newbery winner New Kid by Jerry Craft!

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