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In 2015, Svetlana Chmakova released AWKWARD, a graphic novel set in Berrybrook Middle School, which introduced readers to Peppi, a young girl trying to navigate the social ins and outs of middle school. AWKWARD was named as one of the School Library Journal's Top 10 Graphic Novels of 2015 and was later added to YALSA's 2016 Great Graphic Novels for Teens. This year, Chmakova returns with BRAVE, which is also set at Berrybrook Middle School, but introduces a new character named Jensen, who combines his love of video-games with his social anxiety to make middle school tolerable.

Jensen Graham is a student at Berrybrook Middle School who is concerned with the hazardous nature of sunspots. His dream and daily fantasy is to one day save the world from the dangers of sunspots as an astronaut. One day, when he’s grown and exploring space, his findings will save everyone, then he’ll be the big hero --- if Jensen manages to pass middle school math and survive the daily wrath of the mean kids, that is.

"Whether or not you have read AWKWARD...I consider BRAVE one of this year’s must-reads for anybody who has a difficult time understanding the problems and pain that bullying can cause."

The trials of Jensen’s day-to-day, however, are made easier by pretending his life is actually a video game, and that each new day is, in fact, a new level of the game. If he manages to navigate past the game monsters of mean kids and math class, he is rewarded by the prize at the end of the level: Art Club and all his friends! At art club Jensen meets up with like-minded kids and draws spaceships (Jensen has been on a big spaceship kick lately).

Jensen’s regular routine gets shaken up when he is interviewed and recruited by the super cool and hard-working crew of the school newspaper, including Jenny and Akilah! At first he does a few things around the newspaper office to warm up to his new friends, but it isn’t long until they reveal that they’re working on an expose about bullying!

At first Jensen is confused as to why he’s been recruited specifically for this interview, but as his days pass by after the interview he notices more and more that he isn’t just bullied by the mean kids, but sometimes his closest friends. It’s in this portion of the book does Svetlana Chmakova’s art style and ability to shift tones so elegantly comes in handy and really shines. Jensen learning that best friends can still be hurtful and that it is okay to ask them to stop is a really hard facet of bullying to acknowledge and even harder to depict with the right gravity for a younger reader.

This particular aspect of Chmakova’s BRAVE is what makes it so much more memorable than other fictional books about bullying. In addition, Chmakova’s focus on including diverse characters without resorting to stereotypes or painful tropes makes her Berrybrook Middle School series an important and powerful book for readers of all ages. Whether or not you have read AWKWARD (though if you haven’t, I must recommend it now!), I consider BRAVE one of this year’s must-reads for anybody who has a difficult time understanding the problems and pain that bullying can cause.

Reviewed by Matthew Burbridge on May 22, 2017

by Svetlana Chmakova