Genre: Realistic Fiction, Graphic Novel
Things Jensen likes: daydreaming about going into space, Star Trek, planning how to save his friends from the zombie apocalypse. Things Jensen hates: math, jerky classmates, and being left out. Thing Jensen loves most of all: art club!
The other people in art club love him, too, right? That’s why Tess teases him and the others call him “Sunspot Boy.” And if they forgot to save him a seat at lunch or add him to the group text about the poster project, it’s an honest mistake. Isn’t it?
It might take a newspaper club, a tutoring group, and a suspension or two, but Jensen is determined to prove to everyone that can be a hero. He just needs to figure out how to be brave first.
I actually had to put the book down for a few minutes because it was making me feel so sad! I wanted to reach in and give Jensen a massive hug, then give all the bullies detention until they turned thirty! That is how to make a reader care about your characters. Update: did cry at the end. Happy tears only. And genuine tears of genuine happiness, not tears because the author manipulated me. There’s a difference! *glares at The Warden’s Daughter*
Quick caveat before I go any further: Brave is actually the second book in Chmakova’s Awkward series (the first book being, unsurprisingly, Awkward). Why, then, would I review Brave? Well, the series is really only a series in name; it operates along the same principle as James Howe’s Misfits books, where they’re all connected via setting and character crossover, but they can be read on their own without anyone feeling like they’re missing part of the story. Granted, both Awkward and Brave are so freaking amazing that if you have space for both on your shelf, definitely put them both on it. But if you only have room for one, Brave is just a little bit better.
Why? Many reasons! First is character. Jensen is just a cuddly, soft, sweet ball of marshmallow fluffness. He’s one of those oddball kids who doesn’t seem to quite fit in anywhere, the kind of kid pretty much any middle schooler will identify with at one point or another. Heck, even as an adult, I identify with him, and not in a nostalgic “this is how I was” sort of way, but actually “this is how I manage to get through some days” kind of way. He believes the best of everyone and doesn’t necessarily see when someone is teasing him in a mean way. He’s relentlessly cheerful, and he genuinely wants to be friends with people. It makes him seem a little young—not immature, really, just naïve. I was rooting from him practically from the start.
Jensen doesn’t exist in a complete fog. He does get that some people are legitimately mean and violent (in his head he sees them as “monsters” he needs to avoid to beat the video game “level” that is each school day). When it’s pointed out to him that bullying isn’t all just shoving and direct insults, he starts to recognize it in his own life. Chmakova uses the “lizard brain” research as a plot point here, describing how studies show that, when threatened, many people’s logic centers shut down, and they revert to more primal behaviors: shouting, intimidation, violence, and so on. The way Chmakova weaves this information in allows her to subtly get her message about different kinds of bullying across. As Jensen begins recognizing negative treatment in his own life, he also starts seeing it in the lives of his classmates. She could have stopped there, but she acknowledges that recognizing bullying is one thing; fixing it is an entirely different story. I actually like how she showed Jensen trying to help others and his uncertainty whether he was having any positive effect. Sometimes even being willing to try is enough, Chmakova is saying, and she further demonstrates that the effort, despite not always being rewarded, is still worth it.
The rest of the cast is realistic and well-developed. Akilah, Jenny, and Filipe are hilarious as the newspaper team; I’m pretty sure I was all three of them at various points during my middle-school years (sometimes in the same hour). The bullies made me angry, but I liked the way that Chmakova very subtly clued us in to why Yanic, the lead bully, was such a horrible person. Even the adult characters were interesting and nuanced (go Miss Lee!).
The art was creative and fun, too. Most of the colors are sort of washed out, with the daydream and imagination sequences being brighter, bolder, and more detailed. That aspect was fairly creative, too, a quiet way of showing us how much richer Jensen’s imagination was than his real life. The daydreams started to taper off as he slowly began to understand what was really going on with his “friends’” behavior, which I thought was a clever way to show how he was being affected by the depression such realizations engendered. Also, kudos to the little jokes in the art. That protein bar wrapper made me laugh more than it probably should have.
Now I want to read both this and Awkward again. So good!
Yes, this needs to be on middle-grade shelves for all the reasons: captivating characters, fun artwork, and an important message.
- Anyone who doesn’t feel like they fit in
- Anyone who is trying to define themselves
- Every single person ever
- Bullying: all the major forms of bullying are shown and discussed
- Deceit: characters are tricked
- Lying: characters lie to each other
- Swearing: very minor swearing
- Violence: characters behave violently
- Change vs. Tradition
- Growing Up
- Right vs. Wrong
|Exploration of Conflict||2|
|Consideration of Themes||2|
|Suspension of Disbelief||2|
|Imagery and Description||2|
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|Mechanics (spelling, grammar, punctuation)||2|