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 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 standalone or the first installment of a series, the book manages to satisfy and succeed.
An enjoyable teen fantasy involving a school for telepathy.
Dickensen Academy is a young adult paranormal story that holds the power to reach out and grab not only protagonist Autumn Mattison, but her readers, as it opens with her first impression of one of the big dreams of her life, and a looming puzzle. Autumn's first day at the exclusive Dicksensen Academy introduces a bizarre secret that none of the new students sees just yet.Besides her impression of the physical academy's setting, Autumn experiences a secondary certainty: somehow, she's been on this campus before. But, that's impossible. Or, is it?As she tries out for cross-country and seeks to expand her horizons, 15-year-old Autumn seems on the brink of achieving much, but she keeps feeling something is wrong; especially when one of her courses turns from a predictable study to incorporating Dream Management into its curriculum, leading students on a discussion that introduces Autumn to some uncomfortable realizations: "My theory: the school used these unforgettable dreams to convince us to accept."As the 'why' behind the 'how' becomes more and more apparent, Autumn and her classmates face some of the biggest decisions of their lives. From her struggles with her parents over her grades and objectives at Dickensen to persistent nightmares and dreams that spill into daily reality, the events, people, and secrets at Dickensen are about to take over.Amidst all this, Autumn is finding herself and discovering the true strengths of attending Dickensen: "The school’s culture seemed made for people like me. I was becoming who I was supposed to be because I didn’t have to hide my true self."Young adults who enjoy boarding school stories, paranormal encounters, and stories of growth of a teen who receives lessons on romance, mistakes, and special abilities will find much to like about Dickensen Academy, an institution which specializes in making dreams come true in more than one way.Autumn's first-person character is nicely done and inviting, and the world of Dickensen with all of its conundrums and confusion comes to life through her eyes, making for a story that is hard to put down.~ D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
“Dickensen Academy” by Christine Grabowski is a story that keeps you wondering if what you are reading is part of a dream or actually real?
Autumn Mattison is your average 15-year-old who is about to start her first year in high school. But not just any high school, a private school called Dickensen Academy. This school is by invitation only and located in the middle of nowhere, tucked among large evergreens and mountains. Since the school can only be attended by those who meet certain criteria, tests were held over the summer to find just the right candidates.
Autumn soon develops friendships with several of her classmates including her roommate Aditi and a boy by the name of Ben, who she remembers from summer testing. As everything she experiences at the academy starts to feel like she has somehow already done it, she starts to question why it all seems so familiar. Not until later in the school year do Autumn and her classmates find that her classes are about to take a strange twist.
Struggling with her unusual class curriculum, Autumn starts to worry if she will be sent home because she doesn’t have the special abilities all her friends have already started to master. Getting kicked out of this type of school could involve all sorts of unnerving consequences for her. Only after a terrible accident will she discover she can live up to the school’s expectations and find that she too has the special gift of Dream-Making.
I really liked, “Dickensen Academy.” My favorite part of the story was how I was always wondering if, when I turned the page, whether what the character was experiencing was real or a dream. I thought there would have been more to Caitlyn and her abilities, but maybe that will come in later books? I guess my favorite character would have to be Autumn because she overcame her shyness and made an effort to be part of any activity that she was offered.
The setting of the story was described so well you felt like you were there with Autumn and her friends during their dream classes and around campus. I would have liked to have had more adventurous dream experiences in the story line as it was the unusual part I liked so much about “Dickensen Academy.” I hope the author makes this into a series as I would like to find out what happens to Autumn and her friends in the next 3 years at school. I’d also like to see how her dream- making abilities become more advanced and why dream-making is such an important talent and how it is used outside of school.
I would recommend “Dickensen Academy” by Christine Grabowski for middle school aged kids, as I think they would really enjoy the unusual experience of this academy.
~ A. Stout, age 13
4Q 3P J S
Grabowski, Christine. Dickensen Academy. The Wild Rose Press, September 2018. 348p. $10.99 Trade pb. 978-1-5092-2123-3.
When Autumn is accepted to Dickensen Academy, she feels like her dreams have come true. The elite, arts-based boarding school is everything she wants, even though her extremely rational father is not convinced this school will be the best way to prepare Autumn for future academics. Located on an isolated campus in Washington state, Dickensen appears to be a normal, private preparatory school. As soon as Autumn’s parents leave, however, she becomes suspicious. There is the way the upperclassmen act when Autumn and her friend Ben overhear them talking about going beyond the fence, and then there is the fence itself: two tall fences surround the far edges of the school property, and one of them is electric. Autumn begins to wonder if the fence is designed to keep intruders out…or to keep the students in. Dickensen, like many other literary boarding schools, is hiding a secret that will change Autumn’s life forever.
Autumn’s desire to succeed academically, her overbearing father, and her sometimes misguided attempts to make her own decisions while living away from home for the first time will likely resonate with readers, but the secret of Dickensen Academy, while fascinating, never quite lives up to the mounting tension that Grabowski aptly builds throughout the story. This book is likely the first volume in a series, but as a standalone, the ending seems oversimplified, leaving more questions than answers. Autumn’s relationships, however, particularly with her family, are rich and real, and her victories are easy to celebrate.—Jen McConnel.