One Year at Ellsmere by Faith Erin Hicks

I absolutely love Faith Erin Hicks’ art so I will read anything that she has illustrated. When Faith writes the story as well as illustrating it I know that it will be an absolute winner. Her Nameless City Trilogy are some of my favourite children’s graphic novels. One Year at Ellsmere is Faith’s latest graphic novel but also one of her earliest. She has redrawn all of her original illustrations and they look amazing! Open the covers and step inside this boarding school that is hiding a dark past.

Juniper is the first scholarship student to attend the prestigious Ellsmere Academy, a boarding school for girls. As the only student who doesn’t come from a wealthy family Juniper is already on the outside. It’s not long before she finds herself the target of queen bee, Emily. Juniper becomes friends with her roommate, Cassie, who helps her navigate life at Ellsmere. While working on their assignment near the forest they see a strange creature moving through the trees. Cassie tells Juniper the story of the family who originally lived at Ellsmere and the mysterious disappearance of the two brothers. Cassie explains that there is something in the forest ‘that hates bad people.’ Emily continues to harass and intimidate Juniper and when Cassie attempts to help her friend, Emily corners her in the forest and threatens her. However, the creature in the forest is watching.

I absolutely loved One Year at Ellsmere! It’s a story about family, friends, bullies, anger and a mystical creature watching over it all. Told over the course of twelve chapters (or months) we experience the ups and downs of Juniper’s year at Ellsmere. As well as the confrontations with Emily that see Juniper almost expelled there are funny moments, like building a snowman or Juniper trying to paint a self-portrait.

Faith’s artwork is so amazing in this book! The colour palette is dark, with lots of brown and green (their uniforms and the style of the old building) but her characters jump off the page. Faith’s style is so distinctive (it’s changed quite a lot over the years, looking back at the original comic). I especially love the way that Cassie’s big doe eyes shine and sparkle. My favourite spreads in the book are those where Cassie is telling the story of Lord Ellsmere and his family. I love the way that the images are framed and give different perspectives of characters on one spread. Shelli Paroline has done a stellar job of colouring the book too (especially when you consider how many school skirts she’s had to colour!). It was also fascinating to see Faith’s illustration process at the back of the book.

I know my senior kids are going to devour One Year at Ellsmere. It’s a great addition to any intermediate and high school graphic novel collection (but also suitable for keen Year 5/6 readers).

Mr. Wolf’s Class: Field Trip by Aron Nels Steinke

Aron Nels Steinke’s Mr Wolf’s Class series of graphic novels have been hugely popular with the kids at my school. With their quirky cast of characters, relatable storylines and awesome art, it’s not hard to see why kids love them. I always look forward to another story of loveable Mr. Wolf and the antics of his class. The latest book in the series, Field Trip, has just been released by Scholastic’s Graphix imprint and I think this is the best book yet.

Mr. Wolf’s class are going on an overnight field trip in the mountains. They get to sleep in log cabins, come up with camp names, build huts and see things they’ve never seen before. Before they even get to camp though, Randy and Aziza have a falling out, which leads to some awkward moments on camp. Competition with another class staying at the camp leads to new friends, but Randy and Aziza must learn to work through their argument too. There is so much to do, see and learn outside the classroom.

In Field Trip, Aron throws his characters into a completely different environment and we see them thriving in the outdoors. There is plenty for both kids and adults to enjoy in this story. Kids will bring their own experiences of field trips to the story and relate to the good and bad that happens. There are plenty of laughs too, like the kids staying up late talking and farting just when everything is quiet. As an adult I really love seeing how Mr Wolf copes with everything that comes his way. His thought bubbles are especially hilarious as he’s often thinking something different than what he’s saying to the kids.

I really like the way that Aron uses lots of visual storytelling. There are several parts of the story where there is little or no text, letting the reader interpret what is happening in the story through the illustrations. I especially like the parts where Aron shows the kids all doing different camp activities, almost like a little montage.

There are a few cool references dotted through the story for readers to pick up too. Randy and Aziza are obsessed with Hazelton the Musical (a nod to Hamilton). The other reference I really liked was Fawn reading the Sky World series, a series of books that she says are all being adapted into graphic novels (a nod to Tui T. Sutherland’s Wings of Fire series).

If you’re new to Mr. Wolf’s Class this is a great introduction to the series. You’ll want to go back and read all of the others in the series.

The Big Break by Mark Tatulli

There are some really great graphic novels for kids that focus on female friendships in middle school. Shannon Hale, Victoria Jamieson and Kristen Gudsnuk are among the best. There are few graphic novels for kids that focus on male friendships, but the best are those by Mark Tatulli. I loved his semi-autobiographical graphic novel, Short and Skinny, about his childhood years spent making a spoof movie of Star Wars. Mark is back again with The Big Break, a story about growing up, growing apart and monster hunting.

Andrew and Russ are best friends who are obsessed with finding the legendary Jersey Devil. They’ve been making a movie about it for ages but need to come up with an ending. Russ starts spending less time with Andrew and more time with a girl at their school called Tara. It seems like Russ has become a different person, someone who thinks that the things Andrew likes are too ‘babyish.’ Andrew really dislikes Tara and thinks she’s stealing his friend away. Suddenly their friendship that has always been so strong is falling apart. Then a bunch of Jersey Devil sightings are reported in their town and the boys are thrown back together again. They have to figure out how to mend their friendship if they’re to have a chance of finding the monster of their dreams.

The Big Break is a fantastic story about the ups and downs of friendship, full of humour and heart. It’s the kind of graphic novel that I wished I’d had as a kid. Friendship between boys is so different to friendship between girls but Mark shows you how complicated it can get, especially when there’s a girl involved.

There are three characters that I loved in this story – Miss Robbins the librarian, Andrew’s mum and Andrew’s action figure conscience General Dakkar. Andrew and Russ spend a lot of time in their local public library in the story and they have the coolest librarian, Miss Robbins. She really knows the kids who come into the library, so she knows what kind of books they really like. She’s also interested in local history and folklore so she comes in very handy for Andrew and Russ’ search for the Jersey Devil. Andrew’s Mum is just a really caring mum. She’s always talking with Andrew about what is going on in his life and making sure that she gets her hugs and kisses. Andrew’s conscience takes the shape of his version of a Jersey Devil and one of his action figures, General Dakkar. I love General Dakkar because he looks like this tough bad guy but he’s the voice in Andrew’s head that is freaking out and jumping to conclusions. I kind of imagined him shouting with Mr T’s voice.

I love Mark’s style of illustration, especially the way that his characters communicate non-verbally. Mark says so much just through body language or facial expressions of his characters. This makes Mark’s graphic novels especially great for neuro-diverse kids because they can pick up visual cues from the illustrations.

I can’t wait for the kids in my library to read this one because I know it’s going to be popular.