7/19/11

"Smile" by Raina Telgemeier

At its heart, “Smile” is an autobiographical story of a girl who trips while leaving a Girl Scouts meeting, smashes her front teeth, and spends several years with dentists. But it's also a teen coming of age story, a documentary of the 1987 San Francisco earthquake, and a fun slice-of-life memoir. In documenting her “dental drama,” Raina Telgemeier has created a wonderful, painful portrait of life as it revolved around friends, school, video games and dental procedures that lasted from sixth grade until high school.

What I liked most about “Smile” is how honest it is, including details both good and painful. Even on the 10th reading, I cringe at the pages that show Raina tripping and smashing her teeth.  Likewise, when she’s betrayed in little ways by her friends, I feel the shame and hurt.  Also, although I wasn’t a teenage girl in 1987, I identify with the details: Mario on Nintendo, the DuckTales video game, the 1987 SF Earthquake, and the faux MS yearbook signatures on the end pages.  Even when young Raina and her friends see “The Little Mermaid” is its first release, we later see a figurine of Ariel on Raina’s desk when she’s in high school.  Heck, even the details of the dental procedures are accurately captured in jaw-dropping detail.

I also appreciated how Telgemeier expands her story into a coming of age story that any middle school student can relate to.  As Raina moves from 6th grade to high school, her dental problems follow her, but she also experiences day to day life: crushes on boys, getting pierced ears, girl friends who mature at different ages,  and playing spin the bottle at a party.  At one point Telgemeier is self-referential to her own memoir:
Mom: Lots of kids wear funny stuff to help fix their bodies…you probably just don’t realize it because no one talks about it.
Raina: Well, maybe someone should start talking about it!!
Raina (thinking): Maybe it would make us feel less like freaks.

The art is clean, and casually cartoony.  Bug eyes, comic-book icons such as light-bulb ideas, helpful arrows labeling items (“oatmeal”), and the occasion character floating in love add to the ambience rather than detract.  The backgrounds are almost architectural. I especially enjoyed the sense of timing, sometimes spending a full page to add emphasis to events.  One example of this is when Raina skips out on the Valentine’s dance without meeting her friend Sam.  Telgemeier has two 1/6-page frames with setting up Raina’s motivation outside the dance, two 1/3-page frames showing her indecision, and then a single page dedicated to Raina leaving alone while the “boomboom” of the music emanates from the gym.


I’d put Telgemeier in the same category as Judy Blume. While the audience for “Smile” is clearly younger teen girls, some middle-school boys will probably also enjoy it.  One difference between Blume's books and "Smile" is that the publisher, Scholastic, has made an effort to omit anything scandalous from “Smile.”  At Stumptown Comics Fest in 2010, Telgemeier mentioned there was a bit of censorship in the publishing process where Scholastic wanted a reference to "PMS" removed from the book, which she assented to.

One more comment: In addition to middle readers, every dentist should have a copy of "Smile" in the waiting room.  In comparison to Raina’s journey, a cleaning or a filling for most patients should be a piece of cake.

"Smile" was nominated "Best Publication for Teens" for the 2011 Eisner Awards. Raina Telgemeier's website is http://goraina.com. You can read the entire story of Smile online, although it's not in color.
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