Banned Book Week: Drama by Raina Telgemaier

Written and Drawn by Raina Telgemeier
Published by Scholastic Books

The scene in Raina Telgemeier’s Drama (2012) that causes a lot of issues is when two middle school boys kiss. Now out of context, that may sound a bit salacious but in context, it’s a wonderful moment. Throughout the book, Jesse was a shy and quiet kid. His twin brother Justin was the boisterous star, playing a wonderful comedic supporting role in their school’s production of “Moon Over Mississippi.” Telgemeier’s main character Callie has had a bit of a crush on Jessie after getting her heart broken at the beginning of seventh grade by Greg, the older brother of a friend of hers. Callie and Jesse served on the backstage crew of the play but when on the final night of the play, the lead actress wigs out and refuses to go on stage, Jesse surprises everyone when he enters stage left, in a dress and knows the part perfectly. After all, he helped his brother learn his role so he knows the play inside and out. Jesse and the male lead West share a song and then at the end, their characters kiss. As they say, the show must go on.

Early on in the book, Callie finds out that Justin is gay and develops a bond with the brothers. Telgemeier’s charming cartooning touches on the nostalgic memories of school that older readers can fondly enjoy while also defining what growing up feels like it should be for kids as they’re reading it. For people of a certain generation, think of what John Hughes’ movies meant to us as we were growing up. Callie is a wonderful and independent girl who is trying to navigate being a teenager. Telgemeier’s approach to her characters is an uncynical exploration of what it means to be a kid today. And her approach is universal as she frames the shared experiences of girls and boys. Callie is her main character and our point of view into the story, but that doesn’t necessarily make this a “girls” story any more than it doesn’t make it a “boys” story. There are some joys and pains that are the same and just as intense whether you’re a boy or a girl and it’s those experiences that Telgemeier is so great at writing about in Drama.

Telgemeier is writing a lot about kids discovering who they are in this book. During the production of the school play, Callie’s drive, determination, and loyal friendship are countered by her confusion and uncertainty of what to do when she likes someone. Jesse and Justin are reflections of her, with Jesse being the fearless one while Justin is more pensive and unsure of who he is. Callie’s relationships with both of them really demonstrate who she is and what she's going through in seventh grade. And that she doesn’t get the big kiss of the book is a great way that Telgemeier twists the conventions of this kind of teenage story. Maybe she doesn’t get the guy and the kiss but she gets the confidence from experiencing all of this life that is so much more important at her age. 

But the big kiss does happen and it’s a wonderful moment for Jesse because it’s the moment where he comes out of his shell. It begins when he walks onstage, in a dress about to sing a show tune to a packed house for the first time ever. And he saves the show when he completely commits to the part and to himself to lean in for that kiss. Again, like Callie, there’s that confidence that’s gained while growing up that only comes from experience. This story about kids discovering themselves, finding out who they are through experience, is a rich one because at no point is it about judgment. Callie doesn’t judge either of the brothers but accepts them (or in Jesse’s case, learns to accept him after a bit of pain) for who they are. There are ways this story could have been told that would have been full of anger and ugliness but Telgemeier only lets her story get as ugly as two best friends having a temporary spat over who abandoned who at the dance.