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Interview: May 12, 2017

In 2015, Svetlana Chmakova released AWKWARD, a graphic novel set in Berrybrook Middle School, which introduced readers to Peppi, a young girl trying (awkwardly) to navigate the difficult social ins and outs of middle school. AWKWARD was named as one of the School Library Journal's Top 10 Graphic Novels of 2015 and was later added to YALSA's 2016 Great Graphic Novels for Teens. This year, Svetlana returns with BRAVE, which is also set at Berrybrook Middle School, but introduces new characters Jensen, Jenny and Akilah as they navigate the drama of being a pre-teen. In anticpation of the follow-up to Svetlana Chmakova's critically acclaimed graphic novel,'s Matthew Burbridge spoke to Svetlana about representing diversity in her books, her inspiration, and how she handles both writing and illustrating her books. Your two most recent books, AWKWARD and BRAVE, are set at Berrybrook Middle School and focus on tween characters struggling to fit in and stay under the radar as they go to school. Why did you choose middle school as the setting for your books? Can you share any of your own middle school stories with us?

Svetlana Chmakova: Most of my previous known work is rated 13+ for the teen audience, and when parents and younger kids would ask if I had books that 12 year old and under kids could read, my answer used to have to be a sheepish "no." So when my publisher approached me for something set in the middle grade space I was already half-convinced I should do something there.

It wasn’t easy because I actually didn’t attend a North American middle school (I grew up in the Soviet Union/Russian Federation, and only moved to Canada when I was about to turn 16). I had to extrapolate a lot, but I did go to a Canadian high school, so I always use that as a big inspiration for all my school-based stories. It was a very diverse, very open and kind environment, with a lot of afterschool clubs and attentive teachers. My art teacher from that school, Mr. McCarthy, is one of the biggest reasons for my going into art instead of computer programming!

As for what would’ve been my middle school years, similar to Jensen, I had trouble connecting with my peers on an equal level and got bullied, so I hid in books and drawings and daydreams. That experience was the emotional fuel for BRAVE, which is basically a book I really wish was available to read when I was that age.

KRC: Although BRAVE takes place at the same school as AWKWARD, it does not focus on the same characters, Peppi and Jaime. How did you come up with the stars of your new book: Jensen, Jenny and Akilah?

SC: They were only background characters in AWKWARD, but it was very hard for me to keep them there, because they were all so interesting to me. Jenny and Akilah are a powerhouse team whose individual lives and friendship dynamic I could explore for volumes and volumes, really. And Jensen is just a universe of ideas and dreams and quests that are fascinating to me, as both writer and reader. Sometimes I imagine them all grown up, meeting up for lunch and talking about all the amazing stuff they’ve been up to. 

KRC: Your main character, Jensen, copes with his life by imagining each day as a new level in a big video game. Was this a coping strategy of yours when you were younger? Did you have any favorite video games that inspired this choice?

SC: My coping strategy was daydreaming! I would re-imagine real life situation into ones where I triumphed and was just The Greatest Ever and Everyone Was So Impressed With Me. Very unlike my real life. To compensate for lack of satisfying triumphs in my waking world, I daydreamt a lot and also Mary-Sued myself into all the books I’d read (I totally saved everyone in Middle-earth and destroyed the One Ring and got everyone to live happily ever after). I didn’t actually have access to computer games until I was about 15 years old, but while they were fun to play, they didn’t really feel like they had strategies I could adapt into real life. What did feel like that was chess and programming --- that stuff legit still comes in handy in probably 90% of the things I have to do in my profession and life. Learning how to think even a couple of steps ahead or set up a chain of actions became remarkably useful life/work skills.

KRC: The primary theme of BRAVE is school bullying, including the micro-aggressions and behind-the-scenes drama that can just as painful as stereotypical name-calling. You approach this topic marvelously, focusing on helping your readers learn to be brave, rather than scared. How do you define bravery in middle school? What advice can you give to young readers looking for their own bravery?

SC: Bravery is hard to define, to me, because it’s so personal for everyone. Things that seem mundane and trivial to some may be terrifying to others, and overcoming them would be a brave act by definition. I don’t really have advice that would fit all the different situations out there, but I did notice this one thing --- unless challenged or disrupted, nothing will change. Things will go on as they are, and sometimes even get worse, so you have to decide how much is this change needed, to you. In my experience, knowing your reasons will help fuel up that bravery tank.

KRC: One of the most impressive qualities of your books is the diversity of characters, who are not only different genders and ethnicities, but possess different abilities and interests, as well. What do you hope young readers learn from this aspect of your books?

SC: I want them to know that our world is an amazingly diverse place and that everyone’s got a story worth telling. I want everyone to know and remember this, not just kids.

KRC: Your first Berrybrook Middle School title, AWKWARD, has become a favorite in both the middle grade and graphic novel communities. How have the responses from readers affected your work on BRAVE? Do you have a favorite fan interaction/encounter you can share?

SC: I have to be very careful and try to not let reader feedback affect my work and my own writing voice. For example, a lot of people were huge fans of Maribella’s character from AWKWARD and were asking for more about her --- I certainly understand why, I loved her character, too! But had I caved to reader demand and chosen her as the main character for BRAVE,, it would’ve been a very different book, and we wouldn’t have gotten to know Jensen’s story, which I think made BRAVE a much more layered reading experience. 

That being said, I love getting fan letters. Writing is a very draining and demoralizing job and as I struggle to produce a workable script, I lose any remaining shreds of my creative self-esteem on a daily basis. Which is why I am especially thankful for the encouraging letters people sometimes take the time to write, those really help me keep going and believe in myself as a creator. That’s my favorite fan experience, I have to say, getting fan mail. I am not always able to respond but I read them all and there are some that I re-read over and over. They are personal ones, so I won’t repeat them here, but they just bring tears to my eyes and make me want to write more books just so these people could read them.

KRC: As an author and illustrator, how did you set about working on AWKWARD and BRAVE? Did the story come first, or the images? Did you write and draw at the same time, or do one part, then the other?

SC: I do them both at once --- I start with a 1-2 page pitch where I describe the main story conflicts, characters and settings and themes, which are accompanied by design sketches for all of these. Then I move on to writing the script, which I storyboard with both drawings and words, so that they work well together and play off of each other. Sometimes I come up with scene details that I could only discover while drawing, or concepts that could only be suggested by writing. Once I finish the rough lettered storyboards for the whole book, and both my editor and I are happy with the way the story works, I move on to actual final page production --- and that part is just pure penciling, inking and coloring (except for whatever script tweaks and changes that might occur to me, to make the story more polished).

KRC: What advice can you give to young readers looking to share their own stories in books or graphic novels?

SC: Do a 10-page mini-comic.  If you finish that, do a 20-page one. And if you finish that, do a 40-page one. Photocopy or print them up into stapled booklets and give them to your friends and family. Organize a mini zine-fest with your school or local library. Put your stories online, get feedback, start building a fanbase --- that’s exactly how I got started. I’d drawn over 200 pages for my online webcomics before I got offered my first book contract. Getting your work out to readers and potential publishers has NEVER been easier, thanks to the glory that is the internet. Wattpad, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram --- any platform where people are just hanging out, looking for fun new things to read. Write, draw, share, repeat!