Smile, written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier with color by Stephanie Yue, has been on the shelves since February of this year. It caught my eye because it kept bouncing back and forth between the Young Readers section and the Graphic Novel section in the kid's department while corporate decided how to classify it and, while it bounced back and forth it kept selling. Selling very well for a graphic novel, and one with a girl main character at that. So, I mentally added it to my To-Be-Read-Pile. Then Smile started popping up on all the book review blogs that I read. Finally, Barry Deutsch, author of the superb graphic novel Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword mentioned the book among his list of favorite graphic novels in an interview at here. It was time to buy this graphic novel. I intended to only read a few pages but ended up reading it from cover to cover and staying up WAY past my bedtime... It was well worth the loss of sleep.
Telgemeier got her start adapting Ann M Martin's beloved Babysitter's Club (which recently got an update and prequel by Martin) into graphic novels now known as BSC Graphix. Her first original novel, Smile is an autobiographical comic. As Telgemeier says on her website, the comic as "born out of a need to get the whole experience down on paper, since I spent so much time telling people about it." Part of the reason that I put off reading Smile for so long is that I was judging this book by it's cover. I assumed that it was a graphic novel about a girl who gets braces and, while it is, it is so much more and so completely compelling, immediate and entertaining that I am going to be recommending Smile, along with another new favorite of mine, The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow to all the preteen girls and their moms I see reaching for Wimpy Kid and it's female cousin, The Dork Diaries.
Smile has a fabulous title page that shows the view from the top of a mountain overlooking San Francisco, where Telgemeier grew up. The next page shows cars zooming down the freeway, taking sixth grader Raina to her first orthodontist appointment where she'll get prepped for braces. Later that night, running with her friends after a Girl Scouts meeting, Raina trips. When she pulls herself together, she realizes that she has knocked out her two front teeth. Telgemeier does a fabulous job capturing the fear that she and her parents felt as well as their response to the situation. One of the things that I love most about Smile is the role that Raina's parents are given in the graphic novel. They are present in this story, calm and loving, sometimes make goofy jokes, and always there for Raina, whether it's her mom driving her to various doctors or chewing out the periodontist who, during a deep cleaning of Raina's gums, neglected to anesthetize her properly, causing Raina to faint on the way out of the office, or grudgingly allowing Raina to get her ears pierced on her thirteenth birthday.
What follows over the next four years is Raina's journey to regain her front teeth, cope with the pain of the procedures and the general pain (physical and occasionally emotional) of wearing braces and the accompanying gear while at the same time dealing with the usual middle and high school dramas from frenemies to crushes to finding something you love.
During this challenging time, Raina sees the movie The Little Mermaid and, despite her initial belief that it will be boring, is wowed. And an artist is born. It's very cool to see an inspirational moment and I have no doubt it will have a marvelous influence on readers. By the end of the novel, we see Raina at her final orthodontist visit, painting a giant poster for a sophomore school dance and smiling for a picture with her friends and it all feels so amazing when you think about what she has been through. I just can't imagine Telgemeier telling her story any other way - the experience of having no front teeth, or abnormal front teeth, during one's adolescence is such a visual one. The graphic novel format takes the edge off of some of the gore and pain of the accident and following procedures that must have been an intense experience for Telgemeier. Her wonderful, crisp, detailed and, ultimately cheerful (I really couldn't think of a better adjective) illustrations make the story and images in Smile so easy to read and lose yourself in right from the start. Above all else, I think that Raina's story is the kind that girls will read and think, "Maybe I can do this, too?" and, "Maybe this thing that seems horrible that I am dealing with right now won't be the end of me." That is definitely the kind of story our kids need more of.
Raina in Smile and today.
This photo, which I love, is from an interview with Raina at NYCgraphicnovelists
Don't miss Raina's long awaited new graphic novel that is every bit as fantastic and wonderful and memorable as SMILE: DRAMA.