Svetlana Chmakova Returns to a Magical World in ‘The Weirn Books’

With her new graphic novel series “The Weirn Books,” creator Svetlana Chmakova steps away from the sunny classrooms of Berrybrook Middle School to another school in a darker realm.

With her new series, “The Weirn Books” (JY), creator Svetlana Chmakova steps away from the sunny classrooms of Berrybrook Middle School to another school in a darker realm—literally. The characters in “The Weirn Books” are Weirns, witches who have supernatural familiars called Astrals, and they go to school at night, when an ordinary school is transformed into a special school just for them.

“The Weirn Books” is set in the same universe as Chmakova’s earlier series “Nightschool,” but it’s a new story with new characters. In the first volume, Be Wary of the Silent Woods, we meet Ailis and Na’ya, two strong-minded friends who overdo the magic, go where they aren’t supposed to, and solve a longstanding mystery. We talked to Chmakova about why she returned to this magical world and how the new series relates to “Nightschool.”

I want to start with something really basic: Weirns. I can’t find anything on Google that isn’t by you. Did you invent this concept? If so, what inspired it? If not, where did it come from?

Well, the concept of witches having loyal familiars has been around for a while and it’s one I’ve always loved, so that became the springboard concept for me. Weirns and Astrals specifically are all mine, but as an incarnation/my variation on the classic “witch and their adorable little helper creature” shtick.

How did you come up with the look of the Astrals? They seem very different from the other characters.

I’ve always loved masks and been fascinated by the concept of them giving a certain duality to the wearer—it still being the same person, but presenting a different set of features to the world (which is an aspect of the Weirn/Astral bond). So I was doodling masks and thinking about what kind of body should the Astrals have, when I sketched a mask with a swirl of shadowy magic essence behind it. And that was the first Astral design! I really liked it, so I just built the rest off of that.

It’s been a long time since you did “Nightschool.” How do those books relate to “The Weirn Books”?

The new series is set in the same universe but in a different geographical area, and it also features Weirns as story-driving characters. You don’t need to have read one in order to enjoy the other, but they complement each other by exploring different aspects of “The Weirn Books” world’s mythology, magic rules, and social structure.

In between “Nightschool” and “The Weirn Books” you started the “Berrybrook Middle School” books. How did writing and drawing those change your approach to storytelling?

So, one big difference between the two series is that “Nightschool” was serialized monthly, a chapter at a time, while for the "Berrybrook" series I would write/storyboard the whole book before I committed to the finals. This really affects the story flow—one is more stream-of-consciousness story exploration with a main plot arc as backbone, whereas Berrybrook’s whole-book approach allows for more deliberate, tighter story planning. Also, while working on the Berrybrook books, I think I really got back into the kind of goofy character interaction humor that I love, so “The Weirn Books” series is absolutely going to be my new outlet for that.

When you were creating “The Weirn Books,” did you start by creating the characters or the story? 

Both! I knew I wanted to set in a small New England town with creepy abandoned Magic Stuff just randomly sitting around, waiting for hapless characters to stumble upon it. So I was sketching ideas for locations and hapless characters exploring them together, and those ended up being the story seedlings.

Who was your favorite character to write and/or draw? Who was the most challenging?

For favorites, it’s a tie between Grandma, Na’ya, and all the Astrals! Ironically, they were also the most challenging to draw.

How does using color rather than tone change the look and feel of the story?

Hmm. As a devout fan of b&w/tone I hate to admit it, but color does give my setting more depth and sets certain moods better. For The Weirn Books: Be Wary of the Silent Woods this was especially important, because the Night Realm has such a mysterious spooky magic quality to it that only color could really convey it.

What’s your plan for “The Weirn Books”? How many will there be? 

There are two more volumes planned for “The Weirn Books” right now! Ailis and Na’ya and their crew have a few more adventures to go on, for sure.

Would you consider returning to “Nightschool” and doing more of those stories as well?

I would looooove to do that. Those four volumes were basically just a prologue, there is so much more left to tell. I have enough notes to fill at least a dozen more volumes with the “Nightschool” world and the established characters’ story. Maybe one day!! But right now, I am so excited about Ailis and Na’ya and the adventures they’re about to have, and to get to explore a different side of the Night Realm in the “Weirn Books” universe. And to draw more Astrals and their shenanigans. JOIN MEEEE!

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Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, editor of the “Good Comics for Kids” blog, writes “Stellar Panels” SLJ’s graphic novels column. 

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