A new interactive teen/young adult novel about bullying, punishment, and redemption that allows the reader to make choices for the three main characters and to realize every decision in life is not ultimately black and white, or right or wrong.
The Crawl Space by Arthur M. Mills, Jr. is a new interactive teen/young adult novel about bullying, punishment, and redemption that allows the reader to make choices for the three main characters and to realize every decision in life is not ultimately black and white, or right or wrong.
Bruce, Mark, and Charles, three sixth to eighth grade boys, are used to bullying weaker students at Dawson Middle School. The novel opens on the day when the boys, known as The Unholy Three to the school, finally go too far in their bullying when they try to force fellow student Johnny into the crawl space under the school stage. “The Rumor” says the crawl space is haunted by the ghost of another boy who, early in the school’s history, was bullied into entering the crawl space, never to return. When the school principal, Mrs. Brown, catches the boys terrorizing Johnny with this frightening demand, she has had enough of their bad behavior.
The following day at the school assembly, Mrs. Brown gives the boys a choice. They can either go home with letters to their parents about their bullying behavior, or they can spend the weekend in the school alone, cleaning out the crawl space. The boys are hesitant to clean out the crawl space, but they also suspect The Rumor is only a rumor and there really is no ghost. Furthermore, they know their parents will not take well to the thought that they have been bullying anyone—after all, Bruce’s dad has a temper and Charles was once bullied himself, having become part of Bruce and Mark’s gang largely to prevent their bullying him.
Without consulting Mark or Charles, Bruce agrees to clean out the crawl space. Now the boys cannot turn back in their decision. When the boys arrive at school on Saturday, the school janitor lets them in, ominously laughing as he leaves, “there ain’t no way you’re gettin’ out of there alive.”
The boys procrastinate but eventually do enter the crawl space. Among the old pieces of school paraphernalia stored in the crawl space, they find a wooden box and three keys—a shiny, a rusty, and a dull one. And so the reader’s choices begin, first by getting to decide which key the boys should use to open the box.
Depending on which choice readers make, a series of different possibilities results. Mills has termed the book series that The Crawl Space begins as Branching Plot Books, and the plot, like a tree, branches out in several directions depending on the choices made. Readers will have several choices throughout the book, each choice ultimately leading to fatal or undesirable consequences to the boys who end up being punished for the bullying they have done, except in one case where a happy ending results when the boys succeed in “knowing they hadn’t just cleaned out the crawl space—they had also cleaned out their souls.”
At the heart of the book is more than an adventure tale with choices; the story also offers introspection into why people bully, the fears that lie beneath bullies’ behavior, and the value of friendship and loyalty the boys realize as they learn to work together to face the haunted school and its many supernatural threats to them individually and to their friendship as it tries to turn them against one another.
Twenty-four choices and eleven different endings will have readers continually going back to the book’s beginning to start the journey again until they find the ultimate ending where the boys survive and are redeemed. Along the way, possible adventures include battling giant snakes, being caught in a swimming pool as the water freezes, walking through the, “Nightmare Corridor,” being chased by a skeleton, being transformed into one another, being hunted by a grizzly bear, and being subjected to their own gluttony until it kills them.
Mills who is also the author of the award-winning part-memoir and part-fiction book, The Empty Lot Next Door, a novel about a true haunting he experienced as a boy living in Austin, Texas, is also well aware from personal experience about what bullying can do to a child. Mills writes in an entertaining manner that will first make readers despise the three main characters for being bullies, then in time grow to see them for their virtues of loyalty and friendship and cheer them on as they slowly transform, realizing what is important in life and what it is like to be bullied themselves. In the end, the bullies become more likeable, and the anti-bullying message and the value of friendship rings true without ever falling into preaching or sentimentality.
Mills’ premise for the book is not to present a black and white scenario but to show that not all decisions are right or wrong. The boys continually try to do what seems logical or right as they are repeatedly faced with difficult or confusing choices. While readers will perhaps initially take pleasure in seeing the boys punished for their bullying behavior with the black and white message that what “goes around, comes around,” as readers turn to the novel’s alternate endings, they will come to realize that most things are not just black and white and one decision need not lead to extremes like life and death or even right or wrong, but rather, it is never too late to change for the better. In the end, the book offers a message of hope to today’s young adults, whether they be the bullies or the bullied.
“As I told you yesterday, you will have a choice in the punishment. You can either take back three notes to your parents that will explain to them how serious the situation has become and let them handle the situation from there...”
Bruce knew that wasn’t a choice; if his father read one more note about his bad behavior, he would be grounded for the whole summer. A letter home was out of the question for Charles as well. How could Charles bring home a note for bullying when he himself had been bullied for years? His mother would be crushed if she ever found out her only son had become a bully. Mark was a proud member of the Unholy Three and also got in a lot of trouble, but he was successful at hiding it from his parents. He sure didn’t want to start a precedent now. They waited with bated breath for the next words from Mrs. Brown’s mouth.
“Or...you can spend this weekend cleaning up the crawl space.”
Charles thought his heart had stopped. He stared at Mrs. Brown with his green cat-like eyes, which looked like they would pop out of their sockets, his mouth partly open, and his hands and knees shaking. He had never even thought of ever entering the crawl space because although he pretended not to believe the rumor about it, in reality, he very much did. Mark’s reaction was the same. He thought he would do anything but enter the crawl space. He would take back a hundred notes to his parents. He opened his mouth to protest against the punishment, but he found himself hearing Bruce’s whispering voice.
“Okay. Let’s do it,” Bruce said.
“What?” hissed Charles in a low voice. “You want to clean the crawl space? Are you out of your mind? We’ll never come out of there alive.”
“Yeah. This is a death wish, Bruce. I’d rather take a hundred notes back home.” Mark found himself leaning toward Charles’ logic. But Bruce had made up his mind, and apparently, theirs too. The once quiet student body became animated. Laugher started to fill the air.
“Shuusshhh! You don’t want to seem like sissies in front of the entire school, do you? It’s only a dark space filled with cobwebs. Just think of it as an attic.” Bruce’s voice had trouble staying soft. “We have to do this. Or we’ll seem even weaker than that rat Johnny.” Bruce’s blue eyes gleamed with confidence and stubbornness. Charles and Mark looked into them and instantly knew there would be no changing Bruce’s decision. They looked at each other.
Mrs. Brown was watching the three boys with a large smirk while Mr. Tripper, the janitor, laughed in the back corner. She had expected their reaction. She had known Bruce wouldn’t back away from a challenge while Charles and Mark would have different views of the issue. She waited patiently for their answer. She hoped they would choose to take up the task because she knew well enough that, if they did, it would teach them the lesson she wanted them to learn. Mrs. Brown’s eye twinkled merrily as she watched the three bullies find themselves in a tight spot.
Finally, Bruce spoke, “We’re ready to do it, Mrs. Brown. We’ll clean the crawl space.”
A common gasp of disbelief and fear went through the rows of students anxiously witnessing the spectacle. They all seemed to share the sense of horror at even the mention of the crawl space. Some of them felt a new respect for Bruce, Charles, and Mark. Some of them found themselves internally scorning the boy’s stupidity at taking on such a challenge.
Mrs. Brown looked Bruce straight in the eyes and nodded. She was happy and relieved that the boys had made this choice. Mr. Tripper burst into uncontrollable laughter as his ring of keys jiggled on his belt strap.
Professional Reviews Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. and author of the award-winning Narrow Lives
“Branching Plot Books are as much fun as the Choose Your Own Adventure and Goosebumps books that enthralled children in recent decades. Beyond being a great adventure story, The Crawl Space teaches children lessons about bullying and friendship and the difficult choices we all have to make in life."
Ben Weldon (age 14) for Reader Views
This book carries some anti-bully sentiment as the bullied ghost tries to kill the main characters in many different and colorful ways. Even if you escape, the bullies will never be the same again. Their souls will have been cleaned as well as the crawl space.
I would recommend “The Crawl Space” by Arthur M. Mills, Jr. to people who like choose-your-own-adventure style books. To fully enjoy this book though, you have to be pretty patient as there are many more fatal endings then there are endings where you live.