Svetlana Chmakova’s middle-grade graphic novel Enemies is slated for next September, and PW has the exclusive cover reveal. The fifth volume in Chmakova’s Berrybrook Middle School series, published by Yen Press’s JY imprint, continues the pattern of the first four books, Awkward, Brave, Crush, and Diary. Like the others, Enemies will mix middle-school drama with plenty of humor.
The first book in the series, Awkward, was published in 2015 and has sold over 250,000 copies. The second book, Brave (2017), had a first printing of 150,000 and was followed by Crush in 2018 and Diary, a mix of stories and journal pages, in 2019. With Enemies, Chmakova returns to a narrative format. And while she may not have gone to an American middle school, Chmakova finds plenty of material in the more universal aspects of growing up. The series appeals to the same middle-grade readers as Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels and Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham’s Real Friends and its sequels.
The Berrybrook books feature a large, diverse cast, with new characters appearing in each book. The star of Enemies is Felicity, who was first introduced in Awkward. A member of the art club, Felicity has big dreams, but her little sister Letty teases her that she never finishes anything she starts. To prove Letty wrong, Felicity enters a contest, but when things go in an unexpected direction, Felicity starts to wonder if her friends are turning against her.
Chmakova is also the creator of the trilogies Dramacon and Witch and Wizard (based on the novels by James Patterson), and two supernatural series, Nightschool and The Weirn Books. At five volumes, the Berrybrook Middle School series is her longest so far, and Chmakova said that the large cast is one reason why. “It was my editor’s suggestion and I was 100% on board with that,” she said. “I have a tendency to try and make everyone the main character, anyway; to me, they are all individuals with their own lives and exciting storylines, and because of that overwriting tendency I have to constantly cut side character scenes, to declutter the main plot for clarity. So the series format of focusing on a new character in each book really helps me dial that back—I can just save those side character bits as development for a future book.”
Felicity’s character started emerging in the earlier books. “Ever since Awkward, I thought Felicity was a really interesting character—she draws a comic about biker elves And she has a successful younger sister in a rival club—and combined with some characters and ideas from Crush and Brave, a book idea with her at the center started gelling in my head,” Chmakova said. “All my characters start with the key points of who they are and then get revealed more and more by what they come up against.”
Chmakova grew up in Russia and moved to Canada at age 16, so one of the biggest challenges for her has been to create an American middle school, something she never experienced herself. By contrast, her first graphic novel, Dramacon, which was published by Tokyopop in 2005, was set in a world Chmakova knew well, comics conventions.
In 2009, Yen Press published the first volume of her next series, Nightschool. Both Nightschool and the later series The Weirn Books are set in the same world, one in which an ordinary high school transforms into a school for supernatural creatures at night. The weirns of the title are witches born with a supernatural companion, an astral, so basically they are school dramas with magical aspects. Those are a little easier for her, she said, as she can make up more of the details. “But I love writing—and reading—both slice-of-life and supernatural,” she said, “as they each fill a differently shaped hole in my heart.”
Taking On Tough Questions
JuYoun Lee has been Chmakova’s editor for more than a decade. They first started working together on Nightschool, and they have developed a close working relationship. Chmakova said that Lee has helped her grow as a creator over the years. “JuYoun is an incredibly knowledgeable, supportive, and patient editor, and thanks to her guidance I have learned an immense amount about the craft, myself as a creator, about how my work lands and what form is best for clear story delivery,” she said. “It’s so important for creative growth to have that kind of trust in your editor’s feedback, and I am very lucky to have that with JuYoun.”
Chmakova gave Lee particular credit for helping her keep the Berrybrook Middle School books grounded. “I’m pretty good with writing natural-sounding dialogue, but every now and then I forget these are kids and I start writing them as mini-adults,” she said. “JuYoun will flag that for me, and back to the writing board I go, rewriting and rewriting and rewriting, until it works.”
The inspiration for all the Berrybrook books, Chmakova said, is the questions she was asking at that age: “How do you make friends and keep friends, and how do you avoid making enemies (is that even possible?). How do you handle jealousy? Crushes? How do you handle anything, really? Humans are complicated and hard to understand on a good day, and in the middle grade space it’s compounded by the fact that everyone, including you, is changing rapidly week-to-week and sometimes day-to-day.”
Given Berrybrook’s alphabetical titles, does that mean there are 21 more books to look forward to? That may be more than she can do in one lifetime, Chmakova said, as she finds the books very hard to write, but she does have at least two more titles planned, along with two more volumes of The Weirn Books.
She is certainly not in any danger of running out of material. “The reason I am on book five of the Berrybrook series is because there is so much I want to just redo/retry about those years,” she said. “[I want to] try to answer some of my own questions that I had when I was that age and [was] perpetually confused by the behavior of everyone around me, wondering why people did the things they did.”
Looking at the series so far, Chmakova said, “I am so happy with how Berrybrook has turned out. Brave is the best book I’ve ever written, I don’t know if I could ever top that. And each book explores a different theme that I feel is really important to at least consider. At their core, these are the books I wish I could have read when I was a kid.”
Enemies by Svetlana Chmakova. Yen Press/JY, Sept. 2022; paper $13 ISBN 978-1-975312-72-5, hardcover $25 ISBN 978-1-975312-79-4