Brave by Svetlana Chmakova, 241 pp, RL 4
With brave, Svetlana Chmakova cements her place on the shelves next to Raina Telgemeier, proving once again that she is a gifted chronicler of the lives of tweens. In awkward, we met Peppi (short for Penelope) Torres, newly arrived at Berrybrook Middle School and navigates the challenges of avoiding the mean kids, finding her tribe and struggling through a challenging class. With brave, Chmakova returns to Berrybrook Middle School where Jensen Graham takes center stage.
Jensen is going to save the world someday from a zombie apocalypse, if the effects of sunspots (Jensen's greatest fear) don't destroy the earth first. Jensen also plans to become an astronaut and discover the ruins of an ancient civilization while exploring Mars. However, his immediate, everyday goals are usually to make it from class to class without attracting the attention of the mean kids and making it through class without attracting the attention of his teachers. The high point of his day comes after school when he can retreat to the art club.
Jensen's inner world is rich and inviting, but his reality gets increasingly challenging and confusing over the course of brave. Jensen copes by assuming that this is normal, imagining his school day as a race through a video game, hoping he will level up at some point. When he gets caught up in the whirlwind activities of Jenny and Akilah, who manage the school newspaper, film the school news, and run social-experiments, his world seems to open up and expand - until a questionnaire about bullying opens his eyes to the realities of his life at school and he does something truly brave.
As with awkward, Chmakova's greatest gift in brave is presenting Jensen and his experiences with bullying and social isolation in a way that is authentic and empathetic. Jensen's character has such depth that it is easy to see how, despite outright, obvious bullying and the more subtle meanness of "friends," he doesn't believe that he is being bullied or treated badly when confronted with this possibility. This makes the moment when he does realize this and struggles with it even more meaningful.
I can't wait to visit Berrybrook Middle School again and see where Chmakova turns her gaze next.