Goodreads: One Year at Ellsmere
Publication Date: 2020 (first published 2008)
When Juniper receives a scholarship to the prestigious Ellsmere Academy, she finds herself immediately the enemy of popular girl Emily. Emily is determined to have Juniper kicked out of school altogether. But a mystical beast allegedly roams the forest outside, and it may be more than both Juniper and Emily imagined.
I picked up One Year at Ellsmere because I enjoyed Faith Erin Hicks’ Nameless City trilogy, both story and artwork. However, though Hicks’ expressive, cartoony style is still in evidence in this work, but One Year at Ellsmere is admittedly lacking in the story. The concept of a scholarship student running afoul of the school’s queen bee is nothing new, and adding in a bubbly roommate and whispers of a horror in the forest do little to make the story feel fresh–especially when the spooky forest ends up being at first nothing but a footnote and later on an awkward add-on. I wanted to love One Year at Ellsmere, but nothing about the book makes me inclined to recommend it over a number of more effective graphic novels.
Simply writing a lengthy review about One Year at Ellsmere feels difficult because the story feels too short and too standard to inspire any meaningful commentary. Readers probably do not have to pick up the book at all the have a sense of its trajectory: scholarship student arrives feeling out of place, makes one good friend, makes enemies of the popular girl, has secret run-ins with her tormentors, is falsely accused by authority figures, then finally sees justice served. The title suggests this all takes place over the course of the year, but it all happens so fast and so predictably, that this storyline rather seems like it ought to be just one subplot in a lengthier book–one probably having to do with the magic that is barely discussed.
I think the addition of a monster in the forest outside the school is meant to add interest to what is otherwise a standard tale. However, putting monsters in a story only works if, well, they monsters are a meaningful part. At first, I was not sure if magic was even meant to be real in the world of One Year at Ellsmere because all readers get is a secondhand account of the disappearance of man decades ago–a disappearance said to be the result of the creatures in the trees. Then the topic never comes up again, until the end of the book, where the characters all conveniently run into the forest.
But all this leads to questions. Is the forest commonly known to be magic? Is it forbidden to students? Does anyone ever try to go in there? Why or why not? Usually when there is an enchanted wood in a story, the people living right next door to it know about it, and treat it cautiously. The students at Ellsmere seem to never think about the woods at all, however. This would suggest in part that maybe magic is not a common element in this world. But then… the ending of the story should come as more of a shock. The creature is real! Magic is out there! But, eh. The characters just seem to note it as just another thing that happened to them that day. This is all very confusing, and arguably shoddy worldbuilding.
One Year at Ellsmere does at least have Faith Erin Hicks’ wonderful artwork, but that is not enough to make the book feel like it is worth reading. Not when so many graphic novels are being published and there is a wealth of amazing content to choose from. There is an interesting premise here, but it needs an extended storyline and more detailed worldbuilding for the book to be really great.