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GC4K Book Club: Smile

I have literally just returned from the dentist where she installed a temporary crown over what used to be my tooth.  With half of my face still numb from the Novocain, could there be a better time to discuss Raina Telgemeier’s new book, Smile?

Joining me for this month’s Good Comics for Kids Book Club are Esther Keller, Scott Robins, Katherine Dacey, and Robin Brenner.  Quick, one of you people who is over twenty-one and legally allowed to drink cheap wine, pass me a glass.  My tooth hurts.  Now, let’s get started.

Raina Telgemeier
Rated: 9-12
Scholastic, March 2010, ISBN 978-0-545-13206-0
224 pages, $10.99

Many thanks to Scholastic for providing enough review copies to go around.

From the back cover: “Raina just wants to be a normal sixth grader.  But one night after Girl Scouts she trips and falls, severely injuring her two front teeth.  What follows is a long and frustrating journey with on-again, off-again braces, surgery, embarrassing headgear, and even a retainer with fake teeth attached (!).  And on top of all that, there’s still more to deal with: a major earthquake, boy confusion, and friends who turn out to be not so friendly.  Raina’s story takes us from middle school to high school, where she discovers her artistic voice, finds out what true friendship really means, and where she can finally…smile.”

Eva:  One of the things that impressed me about this book is how well Raina (I feel like I can call her by her first name now) remembered how awful middle school is. Or rather how awful we feel we are during the “Early Puberty Years.”  But maybe I’m projecting.  Setting aside her dental issues for the moment, how true-to-life did you find Raina’s experiences at school and at home to be?

Esther:  Poor Eva! It’s no fun going to the dentist. I’d say avoid it, but then it’s quite possible, all your teeth will fall out…

And I have to agree, what impressed me about this book was how she captured middle school life. I witness the drama every day… hear the stories… and while I think things are certainly different today, much of the drama might be online or via txt, it still is true. Raina’s insecurities are very real.

What I also liked about this is how she deftly wove the drama of her fall and the subsequent outcomes (I cannot believe a fall caused all that dental work!) into her day to day life and the realities of middle school.

Scott:  I was always one of those kids who was a bit obsessed with brushing my teeth and constantly forcing my parents to take me to the dentist because I was absolutely convinced I had gingivitis. Plus I also had braces. Raina’s book definitely took me back to those days of constant visits to the orthodontist and I know these experiences will ring true for anyone who has ever been to the dentist and felt the same anxiety Raina experienced.

I think the strength of Smile is its portrayal of these moments of sheer joy and sheer embarrassment both with such poignancy and comedic timing; many of them made me literally laugh out loud while reading. Also, I felt that this book really conveys the strong relationships between parents and children especially in times of crisis, but with humour and warmth. I’m going to step out on a limb here and say that after reading this book I think Raina has the potential to become the Judy Blume of the kids graphic novel set.

Kate:  Sometimes I felt like I was reading a transcript of my middle school years, not reading a comic! So much of Smile rang true for me, from the interaction between Raina and her frenemies to the awkward interaction between Raina and her stand partner. Anyone who’s played in a junior high school band remembers how exquisitely awkward it was to sit next to a cute boy or girl: not only did you have to worry about hiding your feelings for him or her, you also had to worry about playing the wrong note in front of 30 or 40 equally nervous and insecure seventh graders. Trust me, I know! I took up the oboe in the sixth grade, and spent the next three years in mortal fear of blatting, honking, or strangling a note in front of a trumpet player I fancied.

I will quibble a bit with calling Telgemeier the “Judy Blume of graphic novels,” though, as I positively loathed Blume’s books—I never found them true to my own experiences, and often found her characters kind of dopey. I thought Smile was much more firmly rooted in real experience than any of Blume’s books. Looking back on my own middle school years, for example, I knew girls who behaved just like Raina’s friends, blowing hot and cold over trivial things, and trying to make late bloomers feel “babyish” for not embracing their teenage years with hairsprayed gusto.

Scott:  My point in making the connection between Blume and Telgemeier is Raina’s work seems to evoke the same kind of combination of whimsy and warmth in family dynamics. I believe Smile will appeal to children who are drawn to that aspect of Blume’s work.

I have no problem with personal feelings towards an author but we cannot deny the fanbase that Blume has and I think Raina has the potential to gain that kind of fanbase also.

Esther:  I see Scott’s point.  I’m not a huge Judy Blume fan, but she is known for capturing those awkward years of adolescence and Raina has done that, too.  Frankly, I thought she did it well in the Baby-sitters Club adaptations!

I do have other thoughts about this book.  While we’re discussing what we like, I’d say, I love the cover.  It was sitting on my desk at work, while waiting to discuss… and the kids kept seeing the cover and I have a long waiting list for it now, purely based on the cover.  No one asked what it was about.  Some don’t even realize it’s a comic.  They just wanted the book with the big smiley face on the front!

Eva:  (No worries, Esther, we’ve started out with the positives.  It’s more than all right to offer constructive criticism at this point.)

Judy Blume-type books were never about me, necessarily, but they did help me understand that while my troubles might seem insurmountable (whatever the trouble du jour was), at least they weren’t as bad as that guy’s, if you know what I mean.  So I can see what Scott is trying to say.

But for me, and I know some of you will disagree with me, Smile doesn’t quite measure up to Blume in the excitement department.  I kept waiting for something to happen and I thought that something was going to be the San Francisco earthquake.  But the lights going out and having to sleep in the living room is not really a happening.  (I was here in the Bay Area for the earthquake, too—buy me a drink someday and I’ll tell you an exciting story.)  While I enjoyed reading the book, and I think she did a fine job of capturing what middle school is really like, my heart never pounded and I never once wondered what was going to happen next.

Kate:  I felt the same way, Eva.  I thought there was a lot of truth in the story, and could identify with the protagonist, but Smile covered too much narrative ground. The high school chapters, in particular, felt rushed. Instead of showing us what it was like to “break up” with her middle school pals and find a new, more simpatico circle, Telgemeier told us.

Robin:  In terms of invoking authors, this actually reminded me a bit more of Beverly Cleary in its sense of humor and family.  I agree with Scott that Telgemeier is carving out a great niche for herself in creating appealing, charming stories that really speak to younger readers that don’t sugarcoat life.

For the middle school view, I think most of the notes Raina hits are resonant and feel true.  The strain of figuring out how to adjust to your friends growing up (and often away from you) is one of the hardest things to understand at that age, and I think she portrays this progression well.

On Eva’s point about excitement—I didn’t really miss that.  I did feel compelled to keep reading, but I wasn’t expecting any sort of grand event or plot point, per se.  Perhaps because I knew it was a memoir and a portrait of a period in life where the smaller events take on importance (often more than they’re due.)  The small events of getting braces, joining band, discovering The Little Mermaid (oh, how I identified with that!), and discovering how nasty girls can be were enough drama for me.  I think of the middle school and high school years as a very self-absorbed time (not necessarily in a bad way) in that it’s when you really start to figure out who you are and who you want to be.  That focus on your own life felt appropriate here, and so even though the earthquake was an event, I didn’t feel a lack of tension.

Esther:  I agree with Robin. I didn’t miss the ‘what happens next’ in this comic. First of all, I think the story of the dental accident is meant to serve that purpose.  No, it’s not the most thrilling thing that one can read in a book, but it does have you thinking… what is happening to her teeth?
And I didn’t read it as a memoir at first.  It was only on my second read, when I picked up on the NKOTB references or when she mentioned the year 1992, that I was reminded that this was a true story and meant to be a memoir.  So likeCC fails at multi-tasking; instead of reading Smile and watching Sarah Jane Adventures, she chooses to just read Smile. Robin, I didn’t think, “Hey, this story lacks excitement.”

For me, what was bothersome, is that the last couple of pages are just too didactic.  “My life didn’t magically turn perfect after that. ….I realized that I had been letting the way I look on the outside affect how I felt on the inside….”

It is a memoir, so it does make sense that it’s written like this. But I guess I didn’t want to be hit over the head with the message.  I am curious as to teen feedback.

Scott:  The whole concept of memoir for kids is pretty interesting.  Have there been many kinds of narrative true-to-life, slice-of-life nonfiction for kids or teens?  I think if we are to look at Smile as this, I agree with Robin that Smile as a collection of moments that culminate in larger themes is where Telegemeier is working and real-life doesn’t tend to have grand climaxes and sometimes even the best pacing. I think Telegemeier made good choices in what to include this book that will speak to her readers.

Kate:  But there’s an art to writing memoirs, too.  The very best memoirs try to impose some shape and order on events—they’re not just reportage.  Telgemeier’s book has some really wonderful, effective passages, but I agree with Eva: there are a lot of scenes that don’t really go anywhere, or repeat points made earlier in the story.  I’m not knocking Telgemeier’s ability to capture the flavor and texture of middle school—as I said before, I think she has a real talent for portraying the travails of tweendom with sympathy and insight—so much as I’m wishing that Smile had a stronger narrative arc.

Robin:  I’m curious what everyone thinks about where this is best shelved.  I have it in my Teen Room, but looking at my local libraries, Smile is placed pretty evenly between Children’s and Teen collections.  I feel like it works really well for middle school and perhaps a little younger, but I think the ordeal of braces can go on for years into high school, which makes it seem to fit comfortably in the Teen collection for me.  What do you all think?

Esther: It’s such a perfect middle school pick that I see it going either in teen or kids, depending on where the tween population of a particular library hangs out.  It can really go either way.

Eva:   Scholastic is marketing the book to 9-12 year olds and that feels right to me.  Going back to the Judy Blume comparison, this is an Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, or a Then Again, Maybe I Won’t tween read, rather than a Deenie or Forever teen read.  Whether or not they have braces, there aren’t many freshmen or sophomores I can think of who would go crazy for this book.  Sixth and seventh graders?  Absolutely.

I passed my copy of the book on to my team of experts and they both give Smile big thumbs-up.  CC, an eight-year-old who is a very strong reader, and LC, a ten-year-old reluctant reader, both loved the book with no reservations.

Robin:  I agree, Eva.  In my collection, we really serve the middle school students in my Teen Room, so it fits well there.  We officially start at seventh grade, but a lot of the sixth graders come into the Teen Room looking for books, so I’m always glad to have titles for them on hand.

Eva Volin About Eva Volin

Eva Volin is the Supervising Children's Librarian for the Alameda Free Library in California. She has written about graphic novels for such publications as Booklist, Library Journal, ICv2, Graphic Novel Reporter, and Children & Libraries. She has served on several awards committees including the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, the Michael L. Printz Award, and the Isotope Award for Excellence in Mini-Comics. She served on YALSA's Great Graphic Novels for Teens committee for three years and is currently serving on ALSC's Notable Books for Children committee.


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