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Middle Grade Fiction 143
If You Aren{t Afraid of Clowns... You Will Be!
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**SPOILERS IF YOU HAVEN"T READ Small Spaces, Dead Voices, and Dark Waters. Proceed at your own risk.

Coco, Brian, and newcomer Phil are reeling after their experiences in Dark Waters and the fallout from the boat crash. Their parents are very concerned about the kids, and wonder if keeping them apart would be better. Do they brood and imagine things when they are together? When two children go missing from a carnival several towns away, Coco and Brian know that this is likely due to the challenge that the Smiling Man issued; they can get Ollie back if they play his game and win. When one of the children, Tim, shows up in their town they know that things are starting up again. When their houses are ransacked and Ollie's mother's watch is stolen from Coco's room, they know they have to go to the carnival in their town and play the game. When they are allowed to question Tim, he mentions three keys, and the words ghost, mirror, and gate. While the parents aren't keen to let the children go, they see no other option. We also see Ollie operating within the carnival, playing chess with the Smiling Man, and trying to figure out what is going on so that she can leave messages and attempt to reach her friends. He assures her that she is safe at the carnival as long as she stays in her room at night, when the carnies turn into killer clowns, from whom he can't protect her. The clowns, like the scarecrows, have a habit of turning people into little dolls, which are hung up at the carnival. The children finally feel like they have to tell their parents what has been going on, but they don't really understand the dark magic that is involved. They only understand that a creepy man has been stalking and threatening their children, so of course they want to help. Call the police! Get restraining orders! But none of that helps when the clowns come to their homes and turn the parents into dolls as well. Will Coco, Brian, and Phil be able to work with Ollie at the carnival to finally win the Smiling Man's game and be safe from him forever?
Good Points
I always knew Ollie wasn't gone; didn't you? I wasn't surprised that she was at the carnival, but it was a relief to see her again. Coco, Brian, and Phil also knew this, and their dynamic with the parents is the most delightful and interesting part of the book for me. It's so easy to kill off parents (and there are a couple not in the picture) or have the villains kidnap them (and this also happens), but the really effective thing is to have the parents be present, helpful, and a tiny bit annoying, just like many parents are in real life. I adored their reaction to the kids coming clean; we'll take care of it, why did you wait so long to tell us... but they totally don't get it because they just don't understand. Perfect. This will speak to so many middle grade students. On top of that, there are a lot of terrifying scenes, a lot of power that the kids have to change the situation, and firm friendships that stand up to difficult situations.

While there is a brief discussion between the Smiling Man and Ollie about why he continues to stalk and torture the children, I could have used a little more explanation about how he came to be, and how the children are able to send him off by finishing his game. He's come back before; will he bother others? It just seemed like there could have been some epic clown battle with the Smiling Man falling off the top of a roller coaster after delivering a rant that explained everything. Perhaps I've seen Snow White too many times.

Anyone with an existing case of coulrophobia should NOT read this book. I find clowns to be tackier than frightening, but this gave ME the heebie-jeebies! Even though my students normally aren't as thrilled with books involving haunted carnivals, Empty Smiles uses that setting to excellent advantage to wrap up a creepy and popular series. I can't wait to see what Arden writes next; I'm sure it will be terrifying!
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