Hicks does interesting things with this much-used premise. Juniper is the new student, while Cassie is her roommate and wanna-be friend. Juniper accidentally snubs sweet, naive Cassie during their first encounter, but ends up coming to her rescue when she is insulted by mean girl Emily while waiting for assembly to begin. Emily responds with a typical put-down. Watch how Juniper handles the situation:
Emily: Hey, look, it's Bishop's latest scholarship project. Did you have a comment, project, or just a chunk of McDonald's stuck in your throat?
Juniper: McDonald's. No, really... that's great.
I mean, you totally got me there. I'm the charity case.
By all means, continue to make fun of my thrift store clothes, my ten dollar haircut, my single working mom... Wow, it's like all of my deep, unconscious fears are begin laid bare before me—
And y'know, I'm with you. Poor people suck, and I sure do wish I had your spending ability. But you know what I'm glad I don't have?
Emily: Um... no. what?
Whereupon Juniper nails Emily for her probably crappy parents and her insecurities. Emily leaves the assembly in a huff—and the war is on.
At first, Juniper wins, mostly because Emily doesn't know her weakness, which has to do with her dead father. When Juniper does finally snap, she is put on probation. Emily even suggests it, but only because she is planning something much worse for Juniper, something that will destroy her entire future.
I will just mention that I found it very satisfying that Juniper and Cassie laugh at most of Emily's insults. This is just part of the storytelling, but it makes a good model for so many kids who take hurtful remarks to heart. The power of Juniper and Cassie's friendship is another strength of the book.
Now, you may not be thinking that The War at Ellsmere is a fantasy, but it is. Cassie tells Juniper stories about the mythical creatures who live in the woods, and Juniper is startled to find out that the stories may be true. What exactly happened to Lord Ellsmere's sons when the school was still an aristocrat's estate? Trust me when I say that no one has ever before used unicorns the way Hicks does in this book. Good will triumph in the end, and Juniper will learn that while being smart isn't always quite enough to defeat someone like Emily, she can still hold her own with the help of Cassie and of the universe.
Like Friends with Boys, The War at Ellsmere is well illustrated, but just as important (or more so), it is well thought out. The dialogue is especially sharp, and I'm very fond of Hicks' humor. I'll leave you with just one more example:
Cassie: You were talking to yourself.
Juniper: Noooo. I was narrating. There's a difference.
Note: I'm not sure what grade these girls are in—maybe middle school? Booklist says it's for grades 5-8.