Svetlana Chmakova is a veritable master of tweenage drama. In the Dramacon series, Chmakova captured the awe of attending a first comic convention. In her the Dwayne McDuffie Award-winning Berrybrook Middle School series, Chmakova tackled the politics of adolescent belonging with humor and gut-wrenching honesty. In Nightschool: The Weirn Books, Chmakova introduced a class of mystery-solving, supernatural tweenage witches. And now with its continuation, The Weirn Books, Vol. 1: Be Wary of the Silent Woods, Chmakova is back in middle school again, combining the magical realism of a Harry Potter novel with hair-raising, daemon hijinks.
With the unpopular Ailis Thornton, Chmakova proves once again why she has such a natural gift for middle school gab and tweenage gossip. Chmakova’s plucky new heroine has an innate charm and social cluelessness that appeals to the geek in us.
The Beat talks to Chmakova about manga, Berrybrook and why Ailis and her irascible Grandma were so much fun to create.
Nancy Powell: So you have a new middle grade series out! Can you talk briefly about the The Weirn Books?
Svetlana Chmakova: It’s a fun supernatural/urban fantasy adventure! It’s set on the misty coast of New England, land of storms, mosquitoes and irate mermaids who throw trash back at the tourists. The main characters are middle grade kids who are Weirns (a special kind of witch born with demon guardian spirits bound to them), and they have to go to their magic school every weeknight through a Creepy Silent Forest with a Secret. The kids make a series of bad life choices with regards to that, end up in trouble and a lot more dangerous adventure than they ever wanted. Hilarity and lots of running for their lives ensues!
Powell: Does this book take place in the same time frame and universe as the original four-volume series? And will any of the original characters play a role?
Chmakova: The new series is set in the same universe but in a different geographical area. I don’t know yet if any of the original characters will make an appearance! That could be fun. Right now the only connection to the original is the shared universe/rules/mythology, as well as the brief mention of the Leiburne name (that family is very large and spread out, so the family name can show up all over). Oh, and also Mr. Raccoon makes his usual cameo appearance! He appears three times, in the first and the last chapters. Happy hunting!
Powell: Which character of The Weirn Books was your favorite to create and draw?
Chmakova: Grandma, Na’ya, and the Astrals are a tie for favorites. I had so much fun drawing all their expressions and body language. But I love them all. I don’t really design characters that I don’t enjoy drawing, haha! I can do that, it’s one of the benefits of doing your own book.
Powell: I loved Grandma’s quirkiness! Was Grandma inspired by your own grandmother?
Chmakova: No! I deliberately don’t base characters on any one single person; Julia is more an amalgam of all the indomitable grandparents I’ve known—technically retired but still somehow hip-deep in work, grandchild care, endless Feeding Of All Who Come By, miles-long to-do lists, commitments and tasks in their community. Grandma in The Weirn Books is an awed homage to that general spirit.
Powell: So if you had to choose a character you identify with most across all your books, who would it be?
Chmakova: I would have to say Penelope from Awkward or Ailis. Both are shy and don’t think fast on their feet in social situations and that was me for most of my life. Still is, I guess.
Powell: How do you decide on color palettes in which to ink your novels? Does it have to do with subject matter or is it more personal preference?
Chmakova: I am not very good with color so usually I try to go with as limited a palette as I can get away with… So that’s my main guiding principle, how can I weasel out of having to actually use color on a color book (shhh!). But for the Weirn Books I needed to step out of my comfort zone because I really wanted to show the reader the Night Realm world in all its magic and splendor, as well as establish an appropriate mysterious atmosphere. So I had to design a wider color palette for this, very grudgingly. (And with this, a big shoutout to my longtime coloring assistant, Melissa McCommon, who had to put in the extra long hours dealing with the aftermath of those decisions. Thank you!!)
Powell: At what age did you discover manga? Why was this genre so impactful to you as a budding creator?
Chmakova: I was 17, I think, when I first encountered manga. I actually had watched anime (Robotech, Speed Racer, Candy Candy, Sailor Moon) way before I read my first manga (Ranma 1/2 by Rumiko Takahashi and You’re Under Arrest! By Kōsuke Fujishima). I think manga specifically was a formative experience because the stuff I saw was expressive, cinematic and engrossing, with clear black and white cartoon iconography that I could properly process and deconstruct (unlike color, I have some trouble processing that, so full-color comics seemed a bit inaccessible, to me). Manga was love at first sight for me, and absorbing the medium’s various approaches to pacing and story/character-building ended up being very useful to me as a developing creator.
Powell: Which manga series made you think, ‘Wow, this is something I want to do when i grow up’?
Chmakova: It never really crystallized in those terms, for me, but the book that came closest to having that sort of impact was probably MARS by Fuyumi Sōryō. I read the first volume of that to shreds and l remember wanting very badly to make a book like that. “Chasing Rainbows”, my first online manga, was the direct result of me trying to Make A Book Like That, even though it ended up being very different in feel and tone and everything else.
Powell: If you could geek out over a manga artist, who would that be?
Chmakova: I really admire the work of Moto Hagio. Everything I’ve read by her has been a master class. But it’s really impossible to pick only one, there are so many true masters of the craft working in the manga medium.
Powell: Which comic book artists and series have proved most pivotal to your development as an artist?
Chmakova: The very first issue of ElfQuest by Wendy & Richard Pini was the catalyst that made me draw comics for the first time EVER. I was about 14 when I read it and immediately after that was the first time I can recall producing actual story-form sequential art. After that it was Rumiko Takahashi’s Ranma 1/2, Kōsuke Fujishima’s You’re Under Arrest!, Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise, MARS by Fuyumi Sōryō, and, later in college, Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson.
Powell: So now that you’ve had a young adult comic with Dramacon, a modern slice of middle school life series with The Berrybrook Books, and a supernatural one with the The Weirn Books, can we expect a science fiction series in the near future?
Chmakova: I… Would really love that, haha! I love science fiction, I grew up reading Bradbury, Asimov, Lem, Strugatskiye, Le Guin, Simak, and anything else that was available. I actually have some neglected science fiction story drafts pickling in my studio folders, so I would definitely love to get around to those one day… But not in the near future, no. I have five more graphic novels to write and draw right now, that I am SO excited about. Two more for The Weirn Books (so much more adventure for the kids to have!!) and three more for Berrybrook (E! F! G!) But maybe some SF short stories??… I think my drawing hand just screamed at me for even considering it. We’ll have to wait and see, I guess.
The Weirn Books, Vol. 1 will be published under Yen Press’ JY imprint, which is a platform for a variety of original titles and content aimed at the burgeoning YA and middle grade markets.