Svetlana Chmakova, author and illustrator of the Berrybrook Middle School series and The Weirn Books, Vol. 1: Be Wary of the Silent Woods, among other graphic novels and manga books, needs little introduction. Her fifth Berrybrook title, Enemies (JY/Yen Press, Sept.), returns to the world of the “art club kids,” with lots of humor, middle school friendship, and more than a few awkward moments. Chmakova chatted with PW about writing and illustrating for young readers and the ever-evolving world of graphic novels and manga.
What are some continued sources of inspiration for your work?
My childhood and the many unanswered questions about human behavior and life in general that I had back then—and still have now, a lot of the time. Also, a lot of coffee, sleepless nights staring at my screen, and my many, many, many varied and random interests.
What can you share about the latest volume in the Berrybrook Middle School series, Enemies?
I am really proud of this book and so happy I got the chance to write it. The art club kids always had a special place in my heart, and Felicity especially, I felt, had an interesting story, with her younger sister being in a rival club and being extremely capable and accomplished AND bratty about it (I mean, how does THAT play at home? Family dinners must get really awkward…). The pressure, both real and imagined, to succeed in 'All the Things,' as well as how different people respond to that pressure are among the bigger themes in Enemies. There is also the usual humor, high-pitched middle school friendship drama, and surprise plot turns (at least I hope they are surprising plot turns… You’ll be the judge…). I can’t wait for Berrybrook fans to read this one.
From your perspective, how have graphic novels and manga changed and evolved over the last 10 years?
It seems to me that it feels more accessible to fresh new voices now. I see a lot more kids of very diverse backgrounds loving them and trying to make their own. Other than that, the big thing that did evolve, I feel, has been the public and professional perception of and attitude toward comics in general. There seems to finally be a better understanding of the medium and its uniquely shaped power to resonate, educate, and deliver a world-altering experience when done right. I see a lot more resources in the publishing industry being allocated to help support getting graphic novels produced—they are a LOT of work… You are basically writing/designing/drawing an entire movie with the hands of just one or two people—and more support and recognition from stores, libraries, industry publications. Overall, it feels like the medium is finally on its way to being understood. I am so excited to see what the next decade will bring; what new voices will be given a chance to speak and connect to a larger audience within this more welcoming and understanding structure; what new treasures will have the resources to finish production and get on the shelf for readers to discover!
What is it about graphic novels that are so appealing to young readers?
I think it’s the same reason we all watch TV/movies, have art on our walls, send photographs, and have video calls with family—so we can see the faces and the emotion as they are saying the words; see the view out their window; feast our eyes on the rich tapestry of visuals this incredible world and other people’s imaginations have to offer. It’s an amazing experience to read an in-depth detailed description about how beautiful a wedding saree is, or how delicately colored and majestic a sunset in the mountains, but getting to see it provides a whole other dimension. Visuals can be very powerful and effective conduits for information, and I think kids understand that intuitively, especially since they are still hungrily building their internal information banks. A picture is often worth a thousand words, as the saying goes.
From the Berrybrook books to the Weirn series, you so clearly capture the emotional lives of middle grade readers. Do you revisit your own childhood in order to do this successfully?
Reluctantly, but yes. I did not have a good time in my middle school years. But for what it’s worth, I think I learned a lot more about people than I would’ve if I did have an easy time, and now that helps me when I write, because I am not the only kid ever who struggled to connect with my peers.
What are you working on now?
I am starting to write the second volume of The Weirn Books!!! I am so, so excited to dive back into that world. I am thinking I should put a dragon in this one. Should I put a dragon in this one?… I really want to. Maybe I will.
Are there any dream projects you would love to create in the future?
I just want to write and draw stories for Nightschool and The Weirn Books until I’m 100-plus years old and can’t hold a pencil anymore. That’s my dream, to just do that!