Jensen Graham just knows that he will save the world one day. He is prepared for tornadoes, a zombie apocalypse, and even though they still vex him, Jensen is working on a way to prepare for sunspots. After all, one day he will be a NASA astronaut, that is if he can figure out how to get past his problems understanding math. Jensen is—as he proclaims on page one—an ordinary middle school student, but no matter how brightly he views his future prospects, his current social status amongst his peers often clashes with his own optimism.
Following up her hit series opener, Awkward, Svetlana Chmakova returns to Berrybrook Middle School, but switches focus from Peppi (the protagonist of her debut) to Jensen. Jensen has a vivid imagination, but he is also a target for bullies. First, there is the obvious type: two boys who call Jensen names for being overweight and threaten to physically harm him. Beyond this, Chmakova ventures into more murky waters with people Jensen considers his friends. For instance Tess, a fellow member of the Art Club excludes Jensen from group discussions and engages in “just kidding” bullying which leaves Jensen feeling confused. Are Tess’ comments a joke or is Jensen the joke? Furthermore, the club forgets to save a seat for Jensen at lunch often, leaving him to eat alone. When he begins to feel unwanted in the Art Club, Jensen meanders over to the school newspaper run by the intense Jenny and her more level headed best friend Akilah. Jenny and Akilah certainly need Jensen’s help, but are they really his friends, or do they just want him to work for them? And why do they keep asking him to read their social studies paper?
Another great addition to the narrative comes when fellow Art Club member Felicia is kicked out of school for wearing a short skirt during a cosplay activity. “They’re making her miss classes over a skirt,” one boy complains. “The school admin decided that a girl’s clothes were more important than her education,” agrees teacher Miss. Lee. When Jensen is assigned to work with a jock named Jorge for a class assignment he challenges his own misconceptions about the “sports kids.” Jorge and his friend Olivia are always on the lookout to stop bullying. Jensen realizes that they all share a common ground in having a fandom—“I guess sports are kinda like their Star Trek,” he muses in one panel.
In the backdrop of all of this Jensen himself seems to have trouble focusing. He is so eager to please that he just agrees to everything. Kids will relate to Jensen’s frequent daydreams of heroism, as well as his quirks such as equating his school day battles to video game levels. Gladly, Chmakova’s art in this volume continues doing what made Awkward so refreshing: portraying a wonderfully diverse group of “real kids.” Berrybrook’s faculty and students represent all different body types, races, and physical abilities, and tokenism is nowhere to be found. Akilah wears a hijab, as does Mrs. Rashad, Berrybrook’s fierce gym teacher with unmatchable pushup skills. While Jensen is teased for being overweight, several of his fellow students, including “bad friend” Tess, represent larger body frames. Jensen’s math tutor walks with braces.
In the end, Jensen realizes that bravery has many paths, and standing up for yourself might not be fighting zombies, but still requires courage. Fans of Awkward will love this addition, though it is not necessary to read that one first in order to enjoy Brave.
by Svetlana Chmakova
Yen Press, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: All Ages