Award-winning creator Svetlana Chmakova goes back to nightschool with a new series, The Weirn Books: Be Wary of The Silent Woods. The first story, available now from Yen Press’ middle grade graphic novel imprint, JY, introduces us to Ailis Thornton and her cousin, Na’ya Leiburne-Thornton. Ailis is a 12-year-old weirn — a witch bound to a demon guardian spirit (an astral) from birth, and Na’ya is obsessed with dragons. The two are quickly joined by several more players, including a few more weirns, a cool and composed nemesis, a shapeshifter, and Na’ya’s delightfully friendly and outgoing little brother, D’esh.
Living in the same universe as Chmakova’s original Nightschool series — which has been re-released for older readers by Yen Press — The Weirn Books promise lots of supernatural hijinks packed on top of the everyday fun and frustrations of being a kid in school. “Readers don’t need to have read one series in order to enjoy the other,” explains Chmakova in an interview with WWAC, “but they do complement each other because they elaborate on different parts of the Weirn Books world structure and mythology.”
The world of The Weirn Books has remained consistent since Chmakova dreamed up the concept, “but I am continuously building more nuance and detail onto an already developed set of core ideas.” She considers herself to be a much stronger and more experienced storyteller now when it comes to detailing this world’s lore and its characters, “so I like to think that my approach evolved to be clearer and more confident.”
Artistically speaking, Chmakova’s style has evolved over time, varying greatly depending on her subject matter, though many of her works tend to lean towards a manga-style. Early on, she cites her significant manga influences as Rumiko Takahashi, Kōsuke Fujishima and Fuyumi Sōryō, but she didn’t limit herself to just one style even when just beginning her artistic learning. “In my early creative development stages everything was an influence, frankly. I was watching and reading anything I could get my hands on, and refining my own creative voice by performing a lot of artistic karaoke with my pencils, as it were. Ranma 1/2 by Rumiko Takahashi and the Sailor Moon TV series probably had the most lasting impact on that early stage of creative development. I worshipped Rumiko Takahashi’s masterful storytelling and comedic pacing, while Usagi’s face in Sailor Moon was an infinite universe of emotion and expression that Just Called To Me. I would sit in front of the TV with a sketchbook and just copy down every goofy expression that the characters made, which really helped me understand how to get emotion across in a character drawing.”
“The style for The Weirn Books is an evolution of the style I used for the Berrybrook series, and that one was a more developed version of a style I designed for a short story called “On The Importance of Space Travel” that I did for volume 5 of the Flight anthology, back in 2008. The inspiration for THAT style was several things—I wanted a cartoonier, less detail-heavy and more fluid-looking style that I could quickly ink with only a brush, and easily flat with some limited color (so lots of closed shapes for easier click-and-fill). I used some elements and approaches from my work with North American animation/cartooning, combined with some of my favorite manga sensibilities and ended up with that very comfortable hybrid.”
The positive reception for that story and the experience of drawing in this particular style led Chmakova to propose this artistic style for Awkward, the first entry in The Berrybrook Middle School series. Her editor agreed that the “lighter and cuter look” suited a lighter and cuter story, “and I’ve been happily working and refining the style ever since.”
“At this point my influence is my own style that I’ve been evolving and expanding on to include elements that I enjoy drawing (like flashy swooshy magic and facial designs that lend themselves well to a wide range of expressions).”
The lettering in this series is as fun as the art, and certainly not to be overlooked within the bigger picture. Here, Chmakova explains the lettering process and collaboration with letterer JuYoun Lee: “I design most of the sound effects and the special-style lettering in the storyboard stage, which get approved by JuYoun. Once we’ve discussed and I have the go-ahead, I ink those directly into the art (apologies to the foreign edition editors!!). Then I hand over the art files and JuYoun does the incredible job on all of the speech and narration lettering in the publishing layout software. Once the entire book is lettered, we will review and discuss any final design tweaks and then it’s ready for print!’
The Weirn Books: Be Wary of The Silent Woods is a clear example of an artist who continues to hone her skills in storytelling, delivering a tale that is both heartwarming and fun, and more than a little bit chilling as the gang falls into the mystery of the Silent Woods. “Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” was a huge influence in that regard,” she explains of her talent for twisting a book that starts out as cute and innocuous into something more ominous and suspenseful when a kidnapping occurs and questionable experiments from the the past resurface, leading the kids to a house that is worse than haunted. The Canadian television series, Are You Afraid of the Dark is another one of Chmakova’s influences, to give you a taste of just what this story has to offer. Chmakova isn’t afraid to let her middle grade readers get a little spooked, but The Weirn Books have many moments that young readers can identify with and learn and draw strength from and use in their own lives.
And in their real lives, hopefully readers who have tasted the adventures in The Weirn Books will be inspired to make their own Weirn-sona, just like the creator. “I absolutely have a Weirn-sona and I’ve had it since I started creating The Weirn Books world!”
“I missed drawing astrals so much!” Chmakova writes in the doodles that serve as the backmatter for Be Wary of The Silent Woods. “If I had an astral…” she writes in an comic available on her DeviantArt page, that her supernatural companion would give her warm hugs and could be blamed for the mess in her office.
You can find more of Chmakova’s art and her other works on her website at svetlania.com.