Monday, April 5, 2010

Smile

Written by Raina Telgemeier
Illustrated by Raina Telgemeier
Scholastic

[Full disclosure on this one--I hate dentists. Nothing personal, but I hate having anyone work on my mouth in any way, going back to a horrible experience my first time in a dental chair and a not much better experience the last time I went. So keep that in mind as you read. -Rob]

Raina is a young woman whose parents are convinced she must have braces. Shortly before getting her dental work done, an accidental fall leads to her losing two of her teeth--and the ones right in front, to boot.

What follows is years of dental work that leave Raina in consistent pain during the years of emotional turmoil that are middle school. As Raina learns to deal with having special issues regarding her face, she also learns that not everyone you consider to be a friend truly is. Watch her progression as a person and a patient in this webcomic turned book.

While this book does tell the story of Raina's problems with her teeth during her early teen years, I think the best part of this book is unadvertised by the cover. Telgemeier is relating what it's like to grow up in a manner that's both realistic and compelling. Her stories of getting video games, wearing TV t-shirts, having crushes that don't work out the way you planned, and the shaky nature of early teenage friendships all came through crystal-clear to me.

Part of this is likely because she and I are roughly the same age. So if she's sporting Bart Simpson and worrying about the San Francisco earthquake (which is far closer to home for her than it was for me) while trying to get the boy she can't have, I know those feelings because I was pretty much in the same boat at the same time.

Though it may be easy for me to get into her story I think it would work for any child of any time period, because even though the details may change, the main themes are eternal. Plus, Telgemeier presents in a way that does not romanticize being a young woman nor does she demonize that time of her life, either. I'm sure a few details are changed here and there (that's the nature of autobiography), but I don't see this book as trying to slant things one way or the other.

Telgemeier's friends are a bit shallow, but I think we all are at 13. Raina herself acts badly to a boy who like her, just the way those kinds of things actually occur, day in and day out. If it seems like there's a lot of negatives until Raina reaches high school and a new understanding of herself, that's only because, in my opinion at least, that's how life works at the age Raina is in her story.

Given that Telgemeier is not sugarcoating anything, the time spent on her dental work ends up seeming like torture. They go to what seem to me to be unnecessary lengths to avoid false teeth, leaving Raina in frequent pain and bouts of self-consciousness. After reading this book, I am even more glad I resisted the push to ask me to wear braces on my teeth. Seeing graphic depictions of wires being yanked, headgear worn, and multiple experiments gone wrong only reinforced that I don't think dentistry is anywhere near where medical and optical care are in terms of helpfulness to the patient.

If you're thinking of getting this book for a teen or child to read to make them feel better about going to the dentist, think again! Telgemeier's desire to tell the whole truth means we see the ugly side of her dental surgeries. The end result may have been okay, but it sure seems like she went through far more than she should have. Again, this may be my bias showing.

Before noticing that Lynn Johnston wrote the back cover blurb, I immediately thought of her series, For Better or For Worse, when I was looking at Telgemeier's style and presentation. Her characters are drawn in a style that's basically realistic, but has a slight feel of exaggeration to them. They grin and grimace a lot, and body language is set in ways that are not quite normal but work well on the printed page.

The pages have just a hint of being episodic in nature as well, which helps the comparison to Johnston. This was a webcomic originally, so that's no surprise. I think they also share, though it's been years since I read For Better or for Worse, the attempt to realistically portray life in a way that acknowledges being a retrospective without letting current knowledge get in the way of telling the story accurately.

Smile worked well for me as an adult reader, but I think it would make a great book for young teens as well. Telgemeier's depiction--warts and all--of being in Junior High is affirming of the experiences I would think a teen still goes through today. I don't think there are enough books out there that do this and when I find one, it makes me smile almost a big as the avatar on the cover. In a world that seems to tell kids that feeling like an outsider is abnormal, Smile tells its readers that you have to be yourself, and when you do, good things can happen.

That's a positive message, and this book gets a positive review from me. I recommend this to anyone, but especially for those looking to find a graphic novel to give their teen who might be having trouble fitting in. Telgemeier's story of learning it's okay to be different is the type of book I wish I had when I was that age. I'm glad to see that it exists now.

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