One Year at Ellsmere – written and illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks

 One Year at Ellsmere – written and illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks, First Second (an imprint of Roaring Brook Press), 9781250219091, 2020 (reprinted from 2008). 

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 3

Format: Hardcover Graphic novel

What did you like about the book?  In this classic fish-out-of-water story, Juniper is the scholarship kid who’s just arrived at the selective and rigorous Ellsmere Academy for Girls. Her roommate Cassie (derisively referred to as the “Orphan” by mean queen bee Emily) is her only ally, even though Cassie is a legacy student and rich to boot. School is demanding, but Juniper is smart enough to excel and encourages Cassie to stretch herself academically. Meanwhile, Emily and her minions conspire to get Juniper expelled over a false plagiarism charge; when Cassie goes undercover to expose the plot, the girls end up racing around in the forest outside school and are ultimately aided by a … unicorn? All’s well that ends well and with Juniper’s name cleared, she’s looking forward to next year and is one step closer to her dream of medical school.

This reprint of Hick’s 2008 debut shows a lot of promise, which we’ve seen fulfilled with her later work, including Pumpkinheads, Friends With Boys and entries in the Avatar series, among others. As always, the art work is what makes this book shine. Panel composition is always interesting and easy to follow, the characters are instantly recognizable and you get so much information about them from the illustrations: Juniper’s oversized glasses that hint at fiscal conservation compared to Cassie’s expensive-looking hair. All characters are presumed white.

Anything you didn’t like about it? The story is a not-too-adventurous retake on the scrappy charity case versus the mean rich kids. The mystery behind Ellsmere (two sons of the original family who disappeared into the woods centuries ago) takes several precious pages to re-tell and then ceases to be of any importance. And the random unicorn? What’s up with that? If we’d had some inkling that Ellsmere was Hogwarts, I could have bought into it, but the sudden appearance was off putting. Juniper’s Christmas gift to Cassie, a miniature tape recorder that proves who’s the real villain behind the cheating scandal , may be unfamiliar technology to today’s readers.

To whom would you recommend this book?  Graphic novel lovers grade 5 and up who are more interested in art that plot development will enjoy this. Also, members of the Faith Erin Hicks Hick fanclub who want to sample everything she’s ever written. Although unique when it first appeared 12 years ago, the intervening period has been a rich one for graphic novels and readers now have many other choices.

Who should buy this book? Middle school and public libraries

Where would you shelve it? Graphic novels

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: September 10, 2020

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