"review" · comics/graphic novels · juvenile lit · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · young adult lit

the war at ellsmere

The War at Ellsmere by Faith Erin Hicks

SLG Publishing, 2008.

tradepaper, 144 pages. Middle School Fiction. (Juvenile, YA)

Jun is the newest scholarship student at the prestigious Ellsmere girls’ boarding school – but to a lot of the privileged rich girls, “scholarship student” is just a code for “charity case.” Fortunately, Jun has an ally in the quirky Cassie, who swears the stories about the man-eating unicorn that lives in the forest outside of the school are true. Between queen bees and mythical beasts, Jun has quite the school year ahead of her.~Publisher’s Comments

For all the text-driven novels marketed directly to tweenage girls from the shelves, there are next to no complementary reads in comic/graphic novel form.Raina Teglemeier translated a few Babysitter’s Club books, and graced us with Smile (Scholastic, 2010). Jane Yolen, with Mike Cavallaro’s help, did Foiled (First Second, 2010). Hope Larson with Chiggers should have tween girls clamoring for more, and fortunately her other works should prove somewhat accessible. Faith Erin Hicks is another name to know and remember.

I do not know Faith Erin Hicks from the notoriously good Zombie Calling, and I’m not sure I will, because well, while we have a guide to surviving a zombie apocalypse in the house and we also own a few flicks of this flavor, they are actually Sean’s. I became familiar with Faith Erin Hicks via Brain Camp, a First Second graphic novel written by Susan Kim & Laurence Klavan for whom she did the artwork. Oh, yes, most definitely another for tween to teen audiences.

The War at Ellsmere is another read well-suited for the younger audiences who like manga, who are perhaps a smidge too young to read Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim, and want to read the kind of entertaining pulp fiction they get by the droves from shelves everywhere. (i.e. A determined, intelligent, and smart-ass young lady applies for and gets into a prestigious boarding school where she encounters the queen bee of all mean girls everywhere. From a poor single parent family with a history of being odd, even for public school, Juniper “Jun” must deal with the stress of entering such a foreign environment of wealth, where the stakes are much higher if she fails, as well as if she remains alone. The War at Ellsmere is a story about ambition, and about friendship. There are mean girls, a Luna*-like friend, unicorns, and no boys.) What is lovely about The War at Ellsmere is that it doesn’t read like a novelization; the artwork is good—it is thoughtful, deliberate.

Faith Erin Hicks is able to put a lot into a relatively short story. There is girl drama: dealing with the collision of two egos and learning to be a friend. And there is some whimsy in the story of an earlier war at Ellsmere, between brothers, warring ambitions/perspectives. Read what you like into the Unicorn and the wood’s mythology, or just take the overall story as it is, but while Jun is our protagonist, her roommate Cassie steals the show.

Cassie has a delightful ‘simplicity’ about her. Unlike her counterparts she isn’t rushing headlong into her future in full battlement mode. She still lingers in imagination and beauty and pursues the emotional course. Learning about IQ vs. EQ?–Jun and Cassie illustrate these wonderfully. Ellsmere is a high-pressure academic environment. The need to succeed is paramount and it drives the girls to do harmful things (to self and other). Cassie (who by no means has it any easier) is a breath of fresh air, and provides a link to earlier times, of girlhood, and a connection to the wild (woods, unicorns). She is an “orphan” and an oddity at Ellsmere; and in her way, a remnant. And I appreciate how her character keeps Jun’s youth about her, as well as her compassion.

Initially, I thought, cute girl-ish read. Now, I can’t help but find The War at Ellsmere more and more relevant the more I think about it.

The War at Ellsmere isn’t hard to follow. It is fun to read and the artwork is a delight. The cast list is fairly small, and Faith Erin Hicks keeps the differentiations between characters easy to track, and chock full of personality (do mind the costuming, too). The cover is color, but the interior is black and white and easy on the eyes. The artist uses sequences well, dramatic pauses where you can feel dread—lovely. The kind of dialog/image balance readers of comics like to see appear effortless. The manipulations are seamless, the subtlety that only a craftsman can pull off.

The War at Ellsmere is just another girl’s story book, and it isn’t. Regardless of how one might find it, Faith Erin Hicks has drawn/written a wonderful story for tween readers. Add this one to the (hopefully growing) repertoire.


*Luna, the character of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series fame.

Rachelle at “Living Between Wednesdays” interview w/ the author, here, from 2008 when the book was being released.

L’s posts on the aforementioned (and another middle-school-girl-friendly comic books): Smile, Foiled, Chiggers, and Thomas Siddell’s Gunnerkrigg Court. Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet series (partially because, yes, I will shamelessly pedal those books where I can).

There are plenty more tween-girl-friendly reads, feel free to recommend some in comments. I tend to try to not limit the gender in recommending a book, but I can’t help but appreciate the occasional book that considers more specific audiences. There are more than just these comics/graphic novels for girls to enjoy, but with today’s post, I’m considering reads via a different lens.

2 thoughts on “the war at ellsmere

  1. There is a real Scott Pilgrim feel to the art, isn’t there?

    I don’t know if you’ve read the two Janes books: Plain Janes and the sequel Janes in Love, by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg, but I highly recommend them. Nice art and a very good story.

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