A debut YA novel tells the story of a boarding school with a strange secret.
High school freshman Autumn Mattison is surprised to gain acceptance to the elite Dickensen Academy, a boarding school focused on the creative arts in a remote area of the Cascade Mountains. (It’s so remote her cellphone doesn’t have reception.) Autumn writes fiction and has a small internet following, but she never thought she could make it into such a competitive school. She’s excited to finally give her work more attention—and to get out from under the thumb of her controlling father, who wants her to become a doctor. Dickensen seems like a dream. She quickly makes friends, including her roommate, Aditi Singh, and the handsome Ben, whom Autumn takes a particular liking to. But there are undeniably strange aspects of the school. Right before accepting, Autumn had a preternatural dream about walking around campus—one that accurately showed her things that she hadn’t yet seen. It turns out other students had similar dreams that helped convince them to attend the school. In addition, the upperclassmen are oddly exclusive when it comes to freshmen, who are barred from certain areas of campus. Autumn overhears a group of sophomores discussing being sent “outside the fence”—a phrase she assumes refers to the electrical fence that rings the school’s grounds—though she isn’t sure what it means. Then comes an assembly where the principal reveals why these particular students were accepted to the school: for their ability to receive dreams created by an outside party. “You are our next class of dream-makers,” Principal Locke tells them. Will life at boarding school be complicated by 200 teenagers being taught telepathy? Autumn and her friends are about to find out.
Grabowski writes in an engaging prose that summons Autumn’s excitement and anxiety while also deftly building the tensions surrounding the school’s mysteries: “After dinner I tried to call home, but the phone lines were down. The internet too….A sophomore informed me it was a frequent occurrence. Dickensen’s official position stated powerful gusts of wind coming through the mountain range caused unreliable service.” Autumn and her fellow students are well-developed and likable, and their interpersonal dynamics drive the plot in a way that feels effortless. The fantasy aspect of the novel is more muted than in other similarly premised works, which will likely please some readers and disappoint others. The major reveal of the school’s true purpose comes earlier than readers will expect, and it removes a lot of the mystery from the rest of the story. Even so, the dream-making process—and Autumn’s successes and failures with it—provides a surprisingly apt metaphor for the concerns and desires of a teen. Rather than skating on the otherworldliness of the premise, Grabowski digs toward some relatable truths that her young readers will likely appreciate. She also avoids some of the more predictable tropes of the genre. Whether it’s a stand-alone or the first installment of a series, the book manages to satisfy and succeed.
An enjoyable teen fantasy involving a school for telepathy.