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Interview: October 23, 2018

Following the overwhelming success of AWKWARD and BRAVE, Svetlana Chmakova's award winning Berrybrook Middle School series continues with its next installment --- CRUSH! Jorge seems to have it all together. He's big enough that nobody really messes with him, but he's also a genuinely sweet guy with a solid, reliable group of friends. The only time he ever really feels off his game is when he crosses paths with a certain girl... But when the group dynamic among the boys starts to shift, will Jorge be able to balance what his friends expect of him versus what he actually wants? Read on to find out how Svetlana came up with Jorge and what she hopes her readers will learn from CRUSH. CRUSH approaches the friend dynamics and drama much more head-on than your previous Berrybrook Middle School installments. Unlike Jensen who kept mostly to himself in BRAVE, Jorge has an active and tight friend circle that gets thrown around by the problems that develop. Jorge is a kind, athletic, and stoic young man who is larger than the other middle school kids. What was the inspiration behind Jorge? Did you know someone like Jorge growing up?

Svetlana Chmakova: No, I didn’t know anyone like that, alas… I wanted to be Jorge, though. To be strong and just and make things safer for the more vulnerable kids in my classes (including myself). I daydreamt about having that power for good, so I guess in a way that was the inspiration behind Jorge. The good, powerful kid who looks out for others instead of pushing them around.

KRC: Jorge and his two best friends, Liv and Garrett, experience tons of ups and downs throughout CRUSH, but their friendship is always a key component of their lives, even though the book is ostensibly about a crush. Was it important to you to include these friendships from the start? Did you have friends like these growing up?

SC: Yes, I felt it was very important to include the friendships, because these relationships shape so much of our lives, kid and adult alike. My school friendships were very different from Jorge’s but they still impacted my life and a lot of my decisions.

KRC: Liv and Garrett go through the ringer as far as friendship ups-and-downs go. But before all the climactic action in the later chapters (that I'm refraining from spoiling) I could have sworn Liv and Garrett were going to date. Was that initially planned? Were there other friend and social dynamics that had been originally planned but had to be removed or shifted as you wrote and drew?

SC: Originally I had no intention to give Liv and Garrett’s relationship romantic overtones… But as the story developed, there was obvious chemistry there, which got noticed by my editor. So in the end I just went with it. Sometimes characters will have a mind of their own about these things!

KRC: The two primary antagonists of CRUSH are a jock named James who thinks he can get whatever he wants and a jilted ex named Zeke. Why was it important to the story to have both? What do you hope young readers will learn from their actions?

SC: From their actions, nothing. I don’t mean to sound bleak, but in our society people do terrible things to others and get away with it half the time, in real life. CRUSH is a slice of satisfying-resolution fiction, but the antagonists in the book are there to reflect some of these more unsatisfying realities --- that selfish jerky behavior can come at you from any walk of life, and it can keep on happening undeterred, to you, and to anyone. So an important thing here, I feel, is to at least learn to recognize these behavior patterns when you see them, know that you deserve better, that there IS better out there, and then make your move with that in mind.

KRC: As a creator who writes about pre-teens and teenagers, is it ever difficult to see your protagonists, even your antagonists (like the bullies in BRAVE), through such difficult circumstances?

SC: Yes. BRAVE especially was very difficult to write because of that. But it helps me to know that everything will get resolved in the end, in some way, and they will all become stronger for it.

KRC: All of your Berrybrook Middle School books are set in the same place, but can be read in any order. Was this always the plan for the series? Do you already have ideas for future books and characters as you write, or do you finish one entirely before working on the next?

SC: I could write many many books in the Berrybrook universe. Each student and even teacher have their own story, in my head. I have too many ideas! And I get new ones every time I sit down to write. Trouble would be picking just one. As for the stand-alone format, yes, that was my editor’s idea and plan, and I am very happy with it! And historically, I always finish a book before starting on whatever is next.

KRC: Because you write and illustrate your Berrybrook Middle School books, we’re curious about what comes first: do you start with a character doodle, a theme, or a story? How does the process go from there?

SC: It all happens concurrently. I write with both words and pictures, so my notes are littered with doodles for character looks, expressions, paragraphs of verbal descriptions, dialogue, notes to myself about what themes I might want to explore, etc. I then distill that mess into a 1-2 page book pitch to show to my editor, and once we make sure we’re on the same page, I start working on the storyboards for the entire book (rough page layouts with character/setting sketches and dialogue). Storyboards are very exhausting and time-consuming, but a crucial step in this medium, where you write with words and pictures together. Also, it’s a lot easier for both me and my editor to see in this stage where things aren’t working as well as they should. Sometimes I will redraw finished storyboards several times before we are satisfied with them. The first chapter of “Brave” was re-boarded 12 times! My brain and drawing hand hurt just thinking about it. But then, once the storyboards are finished, we can safely move on to the final art production --- pencils, inks, colors, lettering, etc. --- and know that it has those strong bones and will read well.

KRC: What advice can you give to young readers looking to share their own stories?

SC: Draw and write every day, for at least an hour. Doesn’t matter what, just keep that drawing/writing hand moving! Doodles about whatever inspires you. If you don’t know what to draw/write, I highly recommend diary comics, either real or completely made-up adventures for yourself.