Roundtable: Talking About Svetlana Chmakova’s ‘Awkward’
Robin Brenner is the author of this post.
Today we’re here to discuss the latest in the growing collection of charming comics aimed at middle grade up to middle school readers, Svetlana Chmakova’s Awkward, published by Yen Press. Chmakova is well known as one of the star creators using a blend of Japanese manga-inspired storytelling and her own visual style who got her start in the early 2000s. This year she uses her considerable skills to tell an original, slice of life story after a sequence of adaptations.
Awkward is the story of Peppy (or Penelope) Torres and her simple mission to one, avoid bullying, and two, find people who love art as much as she does. It shouldn’t be so hard, but middle school is nothing if not a time and place where good intentions go awry. Avoiding social faux pas, telling friends from enemies, gaining self-confidence, and finding what you love can be a complicated journey. (You can see an extended preview here, and Mike Pawuk reviewed it here.)
So, fellow Good Comics for Kids contributors, what did you think of this slice of life look at middle school life?
Esther: I’ve been in middle school for the last 13 years, and I can honestly say that overall the mood and characterizations were pretty good. The school environment Chmakova painted was very different from the urban school I work in, but many of the dynamics between the students and those feelings of angst felt very real.
Lori: I really enjoyed it. It captures the feeling of middle school very well, with the search for a place to belong and feel safe. Pressures can come from school and home, one affecting the other. Bullies are also a fact of life in middle school, and I liked how Chmakova’s portrayals weren’t the typical two-dimensional baddies.
Eva: One of the things I really responded to is that the kids’ home life isn’t ignored. Like Lori said, pressure comes from both sides, and Chmakova dealt with both angles well.
The trope of competing clubs at school is a tried and true source of drama for everything from chapter books to feature films. What did you think of how Chmakova pulled it off? Anything you particularly loved? Anything you missed being a part of the story?
Esther: When you put the question that way, I started to think about all the other stories that I’ve read that sort of had this premise. There are a lot. But she did pull it off okay. Even better than okay. Chmakova had her own original spin and mostly, these stories do take place in high school, so it’s the first time I’ve seen this story (that I can recall) in a middle school. That in itself gave the story its own twist. While the story was about the warring clubs, I felt the social aspect, friendship and “social sphere” as you put in the next question, are more of the story.
Lori: I thought Chmakova pulled it off really well. The pitting of science against the arts is happening all the time, though I think both get shorted when sport is brought in. She reflects a lot of the prevailing attitudes of the two disciplines well, that science is for smart but snooty kids, while artists don’t want to do anything but their own niche work. I really liked how Peppy found herself being pulled into Jaime’s world despite thinking they were supposed to be “enemies.”
Eva: I didn’t go to a middle school that had clubs, and in high school the clubs pretty much stuck to themselves, so this trope never resonated terribly well with me. But I did find myself connecting with the desperation Peppy’s friend feels at the thought of disappointing her father and the idea that friendship trumps club loyalty. I always love a happy ending, and seeing how this one comes about really worked for me.
Mike: I loved it. I thought it was very well balanced—though I do agree with Eva that my middle school didn’t quite have all the after-school clubs as the ones featured in the book. It could have worked as well upping the ages of the teens to being more in ninth grade too, but I digress. It still portrays a pretty great look at what it’s like to be a student who is new and trying to find her place in school.
What did you think of how the book portrayed the pressures in middle school’s social sphere?
Esther: It felt real. That opening scene, where she pushes the nice kid away because she doesn’t want the mean kids to notice her, was so real. I can picture it happening in our hallways. While I’ve been fortunate to witness many kids being kind to each other, I’ve also seen the opposite. The pressures of middle school are very real.
Eva: I agree with Esther. Peppy’s need to fit in, to deflect bullying, and to be liked is universal. Not only is the willingness to hurt someone else if it means you get positive feedback a real thing, but so is the guilt that comes after. The desire to be a good person seems to always be at war with the desire to be accepted. Chmakova really gets middle school, which is pretty fantastic considering her tween years in Russia were very different from a typical U.S. middle school experience.
Mike: It does feel real. I still can remember back when I was in those grades and how it felt to cave to peer pressures of the day.
Lori: The conflict that Peppy felt about wanting to be friends with Jaime even though he was in Science Club was so real. She felt like she was betraying her art friends by wanting to be friends with him. The escalation of the competition and antagonism between the two groups was authentic. It can be so easy to turn on a group you think opposes yours.
What did you think of the attitudes raised pitting science against art? Is that a dichotomy you see people struggling with?
Esther: Working in a very Arts oriented school, with a special emphasis on our music department, we have the opposite problem. It’s the Academics, especially Science, that are put to the wayside. So the idea of pitting one against the other, I see it. It happens. But in my world, no one cares about science. Though I don’t think that’s really the case. What I really see though is the idea that clubs and extracurriculars should be giving back to the school. In this case, the Art Club didn’t really do that. They didn’t give the school glory and they weren’t all that helpful. So why should they get a space?
Lori: As I said earlier, I think this is a perception that a lot of people hold. They don’t see science and art co-existing because they seem to be so different. Science is supposed to be “hard,” based on facts and set in stone, while art isn’t. It can be different things to different people and fluid. Here, the attitude seems to be smart people are in science and dumb people draw, but in reality both need creativity to grow and flourish.
Eva: What Lori said. I think the need for “A” to be crowbarred into “STEM” is an example of exactly this. As much as I love the Maker movement, I wish fine arts would get as much respect (and funding) as practical arts. But that’s me on a soapbox, so let’s move on.
Who would you recommend this title to? What company would it keep in terms of read-alikes?
Esther: I have to say, all those readers loving Raina Telgemeier titles will love this book. I know Telgemeier’s books are mostly memoirs, but they read like snapshots of middle school life. Drama is a natural read alike. But I’d also add Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, by Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks, as there’s that premise of the warring clubs, and Peanut, by Ayun Halliday, because it’s about going to extremes to fit in and find friends.
Lori: Honestly, I would recommend this title to anyone who like a good story. It might be aimed at tweens-to-teens, but anyone who has been through middle school will find something to like and relate to. I want to second Esther’s recommendation of Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong as a read-alike. It’s more science vs jocks, but it has the same idea of getting two groups that no thinks should get along to work together towards a common goal.
Eva: I’d hand this to anyone who loves realistic fiction. Fans of Gordon Korman, Wendy Maas, Hilary McKay, and Jennifer L. Holm are all likely to enjoy Awkward.
Mike: I loved this book myself and have been praising it for a few months now, but I’ve been recommending this book to many of my tweens that have come into the library. I even got copies of the book to give to my nieces who are about 10-12 and they have all loved the book. My son, who is 10, loved it as well. But yes, anyone who loves a good story of any age will love it.
What did you think of the cast in terms of representations of diversity?
Esther: This didn’t read very diverse to me, though the characters’ skin tones do vary, giving the sense of a diverse population. The story though was universal/color blind. Black, White or Orange, you’ve felt awkward in middle school. This isn’t necessarily a story that needs to show diversity, though it’s wonderful when it does.
Eva: I loved how normal it all was. Color, ability, body type—all different and all represented without comment. Kind of like life in a public school.
Lori: I thought the diversity was great, yet understated. It wasn’t emphasised, but was always there on the page. It’s just such a natural part of story, that you just don’t notice it after a while.
Can any of you report back on reactions from young readers?
Esther: Not yet, I haven’t had a chance to add it to my collection. I have yet to put in my book order.
Lori: Unfortunately, my young readers grew up.
Eva: I’ve been passing this around the library and the response has been fantastic. The kids are loving it and the librarians are so happy to have something to hand to Raina fans while they wait for Ghosts to be released. I hope more people pick it up. There really should be more of a buzz about the book than there is.
Mike: My kids that have read it have loved it.
What did you all think of the muted color palette for the book? How about when it changed to vibrant color at the Discovery Center?
Esther: The coloring didn’t really work well for me. It was okay, but it didn’t jump off the page, unlike those panels. And if you think of that moment, Peppi’s “aha” moment that science could be awesome, as momentous, the change of color worked great. But it was a small point in the story, and there were other “aha” moments. Where was the color change then?
Lori: I liked the color palette. I spend a lot of time reading black and white books, so I always enjoy getting some color. Chmakova uses the color in an interesting way, by giving the people of color skin tones, but white people are exactly that; white with no skin tone at all. The color change for the Discovery Center was a good way to show all the wonders of the world, outside the drab, ordinary world of middle school life.
Chmakova’s style is manga-influenced but still very much her own. What did you think of her stylistic choices? For those of you who’ve read her previous more manga-referencing work, what progression do you see in Awkward?
Esther: I’ve always been a fan of Chmakova’s blend of Western and manga style. For a non-manga reader like me, this is awesome.
Lori: I love Chmakova’s work. I think her work has really grown over the years from the manga references being obvious to a more understated style that is all her own now.
Eva: If you lay Dramacon, Nightschool, and Awkward side by side, you can see a clear progression. Always confident in her ability, her art is so smooth now. She relies less on her manga influences, blending in more of a Western aesthetic and expressing more with fewer lines. Her storytelling gets better with each new book (not that it was ever bad—I’ve enjoyed all of her books). I’m really looking forward to seeing what she does next.
Mike: I loved it—it was manga influenced but not a clear cut example of manga style. Very familiar to show expressions and emotions in a manga-style but very fluid and cartoonish, which I think suited the book just perfectly.
And finally…raise your hand if you want one of those rockin’ SCIENCE jackets!
Eva: I do!!!
Thanks everyone! Sign me up for one of those jackets.
Filed under: Graphic Novels
About Brigid Alverson
Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.
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