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The Fall 2019 Manga Guide
Berrybrook Middle School Box Set

What's It About? 

Berrybrook is your average middle school. It has science and art clubs, sports teams, and kids struggling with the trials and tribulations of growing up. From conflicts between school clubs blowing so out of proportion that they incite vandalism to dress-code scandals to falling in love, there's always something happening in its packed hallways. Through good times and bad times, like those of any educational institution, the children of Berrybrook Middle School are making new friends, finding new ways to see the world and discovering their true selves. If they can get through their homework, that is.

Berrybrook Middle School is a series by Svetlana Chmakova. The Berrybrook Middle School Box Set includes the books Awkward, Brave, and Crush, as well as a diary featuring additional short stories and side activities. It is published by Yen Press, retailing for $49.99.

Is It Worth Reading?

Rebecca Silverman


Look out, Raina Telgemeir – Svetlana Chmakova is coming into her own as a middle grade graphic novelist, and the Berrybrook Middle School series just keeps getting better. While I've always liked elements of Chmakova's work, it wasn't until this series (which begins with Awkward) that I truly enjoyed it, and this set is a very good way to see how she's continuing to evolve and improve as a creator of solid middle grade realistic fiction. In large part this is because she doesn't sugarcoat the weirdness and discomfort of being thirteen, and each volume in the series tackles a different (yet similar) issue that comes out of that.

My personal favorite is the most recent full-length entry into the series, Crush. While both Brave and Awkward handle elements of the same feeling, Crush is the one that explores it the most fully, as you can tell from the title. But what's more interesting than just nice guy Jorge having feelings for Jazmine is the way that the book works in non-preachy lessons about healthy relationships. In a moment straight out of any middle school anywhere, the school precedes a dance with a talk about consent and body autonomy, which the boys think is some sort of hilarious joke. Well, not all the boys – just school popular kid (which we all know is code for “powerful jerk”) James and his cronies, and they immediately begin to harass the girls and make them more uncomfortable than they were before gym teacher Mrs. Rashad's talk. When most of the girls then cut off their long hair in what can easily be interpreted as a response to this, James freaks out, because now his girlfriend (and the other girls) are no longer “pretty” by his definition. The way this opens the girls' and some of the boys' eyes to what James really is is very well done, and it feeds into the story about how Jorge's friend Garrett is falling prey to James' influence, which ultimately leads him to do some very hurtful, not to mention stupid, stuff. The book is therefore about not just romantic crushes, but also friend crushes and the horrible longing to belong in the hierarchical society of middle school, and Chmakova really captures it.

All four books in the series are also impressive in terms of diversity, which is a major issue in children's literature at this point in time. One of the main characters in Brave, Akilah, wears a hijab (as does Mrs. Rashad, the gym teacher) and Jenny, the other main female character, is Asian. Background characters have a vast array of skin and hair tones and types, and everyone looks like an individual, albeit one trying to slide through middle school either by standing out or blending in with the crowd. While Jorge's size does define him in terms of how the other kids perceive him as tough, it's made clear that that's not who he is inside, and no one else really gets defined by their appearances either, which is nice. (Although admittedly maybe not true to middle school.)

With all three full-length volumes and Diary, which has an activity book feel and three short stories, as well as stickers, this is a really great collection. Yes, it's a perfect gift for the middle grade reader in your life, but it's also worth reading yourself too.

Faye Hopper


The Berrybrook Middle School collection is a set of stories I wish I had as a kid. Not just for its sheer entertainment value (thought it certainly has that in spades) but for its emotional authenticity, its personal beliefs. I don't remember reading many stories as a kid that were this frank about not just bullying, but the psychological effect of bullying. In Brave, part of Jensen's arc is simply realizing that he is being bullied, because the bullying, both verbal and physical, has become so normalized across his everyday experience that he has difficulty recognizing it. It's a nuanced, heartbreaking psychological portrait, but it is also one that is easily accessible and relatable to children. My favorite of the books, Crush, is basically a parable about how to treat your partners and friends with love, care and respect, while pointedly condemning the opposite behavior, not shying away from darkness and things that are outright wretched. Awkward is about how school rivalries are inherently irrational and can quickly spiral out of control into genuine harm. These are invaluable lessons, important depictions, and ones I never saw much of when I was young.

In Berrybroook Middle School, issues of toxic masculinity, stalking and harassment, and abusive, demanding parenting are all broached and commented upon with accuracy and sensitivity. On a name-only basis, in isolation, these concepts might sound too intense for a kid's comic, but I dealt with these same issues in middle school. I remember how brutal and pointed my social ostracization was, how relationships, both romantic and platonic, could and did toxify, I was friends with kids who had terrible home lives. This is the reality of children's lived experience. And the fact the whole set details these topics with candor while never once losing the entertaining, breezy quality of all good children's literature is simply astonishing.

The Berrybrook Middle School collection is a remarkable piece of work for a lot of reasons. Be it the simple scale of the endeavor (a series of interconnected stories set in the same universe, each informed by one another's narrative context, is not an easy thing to write), or its socially relevant thematic content, or its valuing of diversity in both art and narrative (I'm not sure I ever encountered a piece of media as a kid that brought up nonbinary identities), I was genuinely floored by the whole package, every book. This is intelligent, beautiful storytelling that is not to be ignored and if you have children in your life, I can recommend it without a second thought. It's both fun and important, and across all types of stories for all types of audiences, its hard to think of a more potent, wonderful combination.

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