Drama by Raina Telgemeier with color by Gurihiru, 233 pp, RL MIDDLE GRADE
Originally reviewed on September 3, 2012
(when the world of graphic novels for kids was very different and I still felt like I needed to convince adults that graphic novels are IMPORTANT, VALUABLE and O.K. TO READ)
Oh, how I love Drama, the new graphic novel from the incredible Raina Telgemeier! Telgemeier's first graphic novel, Smile is a masterpiece. Autobiographical in nature, she tells the story of knocking out her two front teeth while in middle school and the years that followed trying to fill the hole in her mouth and cope with the new social landscape ahead of her as she enters her teen years. Telgemeier has a way of writing and illustrating very specific stories that are so real, so genuine and filled with depth and humor. Her books are completely relatable, even if you have never knocked out your front teeth, worked as part of the stage crew on a middle school musical theater production and/or are not currently a tween or teen. I couldn't find any interior images from Drama but I did find this great, short book trailer. Read on for details of the intricacies of the story and what Telgemeier does that I think is so wonderful.
There is a great review of Drama by Ada Calhoun that was in the New York Times book review recently in which Telgemeier's books are referred to as "nice-girls-finish-first" and "hobbies-before-hotties" stories, which I think is great, if not a bit reductive. The important thing to remember is that, in the world of graphic novels for middle grade readers, Telgemeier stands alone when it comes to the stories she chooses to tell. As Calhoun notes, most graphic novels have a fantasy settings, perhaps because there is so much more you can show (with art) rather than tell (with words) in a story when you are creating a graphic novel. Barbarian third-graders who travel to Earth, space aliens, magical amulets and anthropomorphized bones are great subject matter when you can tell a long, complex story with illustrations and words. Perhaps because of this, to tell a story set in our world with everyday people and problems might even be more of a challenge in a graphic novel. Telgemeier meets this challenge brilliantly. And, as the mother of a kid who has been a theater geek since middle school, I can tell you that Drama is spot on, from the behind the scenes action to center stage.
Callie Marin, is an enthusiastic, passionate seventh grader who is every bit as vibrant as her purple and magenta colored hair. As you might guess from the cover of Drama, there is more than one kind of drama going on in this story. Act I kicks off with Callie walking home from school with Matt and his older brother Greg, who is also her crush. After getting rid of a disgruntled Matt, there are awkward moments then a sweet kiss on a park bench, initiated by Callie. This is a girl who is not afraid to go for what she wants, and this carries through into the school musical. Callie is over the moon about the choice of Moon Over Mississippi for the musical and her brain starts working on ideas the moment Mr. Madera picks her for set design, setting her sights on a working cannon to use as a prop. She is also excited to make friends with Justin and Jesse, twin brothers who have more similarities than differences, by the end of the story. Exuberant, boisterous Justin is determined to play the lead in the play while the shy Jesse is happy to tag along with Callie and help out with set design. The brothers introduce Callie to the delights of bubble tea and she shows them her favorite book, an enormous tome that covers the productions from the New York stage in photographs, first published in 1932 and updated 34 times since then! While there is plenty of drama getting the show ready for opening night, Callie also finds herself in a whirl of crushes and craziness. The final night of the show, leading lady drama threatens to ruin the production. Telgemeier resolves this dilemma with surprise that will make you cheer. Act VII of Drama finds Callie at the eighth grade dance where another kind of drama unfolds, leaving her confused and a little bit vulnerable, but ultimately making the smart, strong choices we all hope our daughters will make.
Telgemeier's superb new book also gives me the opportunity to address something that I have struggled with in terms of writing reviews for my blog, specifically the presence of gay characters in middle grade and young adult fiction. While I wish I lived in a world where the presence of LGBTIA+ characters in a kid's book was so common that it wasn't noteworthy, I come at this from the perspective of a longtime bookseller taking note of the ongoing lack of diversity in kid's books as well as bookseller who is sensitive to the wide range of opinions and emotions surrounding all kinds of diversity, cultural, sexual or otherwise. Because of this, I have not shouted out my excitement at seeing more diversity in kid's books, but I also have not avoided mentioning it when it is part of a story. Amy Ignatow's Popularity Papers series, which is a quasi-graphic novel, is a perfect example of this. One of the two main characters, Julie Graham-Chang, has two fathers while Lydia's parents are divorced, her father moving across the country and starting a new family. In the fourth book in the series, The Rocky Road Trip, the girls take a road trip with Julie's dads that involves visiting the Chinese immigrant grandparents who, in Julie's words, "wanted Daddy to marry a woman and they do not approve of Papa Dad and will not allow him in their house." I think the understated, nonjudgemental way that Ignatow handles this is noteworthy. In Drama (spoiler alert, kind of) Telgemeier presents not one but two gay characters who are kids in middle school. Justin knows he is gay and talks openly with Callie about which boys are cute right from the start. By the end of the novel, Telgemeier has developed and tangled her characters, allowing for a last minute cast change to bring on some serious soul searching on the part of Jesse. And, while it is in the service of the musical, there is a moment that had a big smile on my face and, had I not been at the bookstore reading when I should have been working, a cheer as well, when two boys, one of whom is stepping in at THE last minute as an understudy for the female lead, kiss on stage. That moment was just so rare and wonderful that I had to share it here.
I especially love how Calhoun ends her article and will employ her words here to wrap up my review:
The Horatio Alger of graphic novelists, Telgemeier draws up-by-their-book-bags characters who value hard work and seize a chance that has nothing to do with looks or even with love. While capable of boy craziness, they concentrate on friendship and creative fulfillment. The better Telgemeier’s books sell, the less hand-wringing to do over the next generation. If this is what the youth of America are into, the kids are all right.
Bravo!!! Encore!!! Encore!!
(throwing roses at the stage...)
Raina and her husband Dave Roman, also a graphic novelist at Comicon 2012.