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Following up on the massive success of her Berrybrook Middle School series, award-winning cartoonist Svetlana Chmakova is looking back to look forward, revisiting a magical world of mythical beings she first envisioned more than 10 years ago. The Weirn Books series kicks off in June from Yen Press' JY imprint with Be Wary of the Silent Woods, introducing the young witch Ailis Thornton as she navigates family secrets, shifting friendships, and a creepy house in the woods.
The Weirn Books, Chmakova tells SYFY WIRE, is an urban fantasy adventure set in a misty New England town where "very irate mermaids throw trash back at tourists." Ailis Thornton, her cousin Na'ya, and Na'ya's little brother, D'esh, are weirns, a special type of witch who is bound from birth to spirit entities called Astrals, which are loyal for life. Ailis' Astral is rather fond of chocolate rolls.
Chmakova, who emigrated from Russia to Canada at the age of 16, first came onto the scene with the webcomic Chasing Rainbows in 2003, followed by her first full-length book series Dramacon in 2005, which followed the adventures of a teenage aspiring comics creator at her first anime convention. Dramacon was nominated for an Eisner Award in 2007. More recently, Chmakova has been known for her slice-of-life middle-grade series that began with Awkward and continued with Brave, Crush, and Diary. These books, all set in Berrybrook Middle School, focus on different characters in each volume as they navigate the perils of early teenhood. Awkward and Brave both appeared on best-of lists for School Library Journal and the Young Adult Library Services Organization (YALSA), and Awkward also won a Dwayne McDuffie Award for Kids' Comics and was nominated for an Eisner.
The title of the new series may ring some bells for Chmakova's longtime fans; her first Yen Press series Nightschool: The Weirn Books takes place in the same universe. Nightschool's four volumes are hard to come by, so it's fortunate that Yen Press re-released the series in two "collector's edition" volumes beginning in May. But Chmakova says that the new Weirn Books series is a spinoff rather than a direct follow-up to Nightschool, with "a different place, different time, and entirely different cast of characters, and also a different vibe." The original Nightschool was focused on older teens, both in its storylines and its readership, whereas The Weirn Books will be more lighthearted.
SYFY WIRE spoke with Chmakova about her new series, the rules of magic, and working on two graphic novel series at once in the midst of a pandemic.
What made you want to follow up Berrybrook, which was so rooted in the real world, with a fantasy series?
I think it's cycling. Like, my very first published comic was a fantasy. And then my next indie-published comic was just doing what I wanted. I thought, "This is natural for me — I'll do fantasy, follow up with slice-of-life, do a fantasy, follow up with slice-of-life." So I guess that's just my natural tendency to switch between the two.
In Be Wary, you quickly build up a lively cast around Ailis Thornton — friends, cousins, crushes, and rivals. And the Astrals! What do you enjoy most about these characters' dynamics?
Just everything. I love writing character interaction. I let their personalities bounce off of each other. And it's a special kind of challenge when you have a larger cast. But it's also a bigger reward. You get the richer experience as both a writer and a reader when there's a bunch of characters that are constantly butting heads.
You mentioned the larger cast and in some ways, the Astrals effectively double the size of your cast. Is it a challenge for you in writing or drawing to keep track of where everybody is in a scene and who's doing what?
Yes, absolutely. You know, until you mentioned it, I didn't even think about Astrals as part of the cast. Astrals in the Weirn Books world are an extension of the person they're with. So I kind of saw them as a whole. That being said, my storyboards, with just the kids talking, I have sometimes forgotten to draw the Astrals because then they're just sort of hanging out.
Every now and then, I have a page that I would be inking and suddenly realize, "Oh, I forgot to draw the Astrals." Fail, completely.
In this book, you've got kids in a magic school, which allows you to set your own rules for magic in this world and also let readers learn how the magic works along with the students. How would you describe magic in the Weirn Books?
In the Weirn Books universe, there's the sea of magical resource, like raw material that is magic. And then there's ways to use it, which are spells. Many spells have already been written and tested and are tried and true. They won't backfire if you try to do them. So that is what Ailis and Na'ya and Patricia are learning in school.
Spells are kind of like programming, where if you write a good program, you will get a good result. If you write a bad program, things can go horribly wrong. Right now they're still just learning. "Here's spells that work." You know, "here's iterations of the 'Fix It' spell" because stuff breaks and teachers don't want to be constantly fixing stuff. So kids do that.
A spell shield is something that is touched upon in the first book, which are spells that block spells. So that's something they also need to learn early on in middle grade.
I remember reading Nightschool when it was running in manga anthology Yen Plus. Those stories started more than ten years ago — has your perspective on this world changed, or has your experience with the Berrybrook series changed how you approach the storytelling?
My love for Nightschool did not wane at all. I've been trying to return to the world. I'm sure you felt the frustration of me having to end it at four volumes because the world was so vast. So I've been pining and pining to return to the Nightschool world.
And after doing Berrybrook for the last few years, I've realized that there's not really something like that for a middle-grade audience. And I think that you will get just as excited as I am about this world, so we are going to hang out and have adventures in the Weirn Book world.
So, my 10-year-old has really loved your Berrybrook series, which they discovered browsing at local bookshops and also picked up at school book fairs. Right now, of course, both of these ways of finding out about new books are not possible because of the COVID-19 closures. As an author, have you found ways to connect with your younger audiences in the stay-at-home conditions, or do you have any sort of virtual events planned?
So my publisher is in charge of that, which is amazing. They will be organizing all that. I am a hermit. I am terrible at things like this. Like, I have social media accounts and I don't tend to them. I get social anxiety just thinking about showing up at that kind of event!
I have done events in the past in libraries and educators were actually very reluctant to book me virtually. Maybe this will have changed with current conditions. But my best way to connect with my audience has been through my books. I mean, I write for kids. I write for myself when I was a kid. And it seems like other kids are really connecting to that, too.
So I'm putting all of myself in these volumes. I have heard from kids that it helped them out when they needed it. So it's very gratifying.
That's great. When the Weirn Book series was announced, there was also the mention of a new Berrybrook series beginning in 2021. How are you managing to juggle writing and drawing two graphic novel series at once?
Terribly. While I was doing Be Wary of the Silent Woods volume for Weirn Books, my son was very ill for several months and then quarantine started. So this put extra stress on my schedule.
I was supposed to be working on two books at once. And I was, in a way. But most of my focus ended up having to be on the Weirn Books volume. But I believe it was Gene Luen Yang that described your next book as being the sort of bag that you carry everywhere with you. Everywhere you see a little nugget of information, like a thought occurs to you — [and] because it's on your mind, you sort of put it in that bag. And it sits there. So you are working on the book. You aren't necessarily drawing it. So that's what I've been doing for Berrybrook.
Berrybrook is a more complicated series to write in the sense that, because of the things in the scenes that I'm trying to tackle, I have to do a lot of research, and just a lot of thoughts percolating to make sure that I'm saying what I want to say and I get my point across clearly.
Is there anything else you wanted to add about the new Weirn Book series?
My existing readers know that I hide Mr. Raccoon in my books. He does show up in Be Wary of the Silent Woods. Not throughout the whole book, though. Only in the first and the last chapters. Happy hunting!