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YALSA Hub Challenge: Drama by Raina Telgemeier

Our first title to discuss from the YALSA Hub Reading Challenge is Raina Telgemeier’s Drama. Drama has been singled out as one of the Great Graphic Novels for Teens Top Ten for 2013, and was also selected as a Stonewall Book Award Honor book.

As a refresher, the Great Graphic Novels for Teens Selection list showcases titles “recommended for those ages 12-18, meet the criteria of both good quality literature and appealing reading for teens,” and every year they also select the top ten titles from their longer list.  The Stonewall Book Award selects titles “honored for exceptional merit relating to the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender experience.”

Drama was also included on the 2013 Notable Children’s Books list from ALSC and on the update of the Core Collection of Graphic Novels compiled by the ALSC Quicklists Committee.

At the Youth Media Awards press conference at ALA Midwinter, the room exploded in delight at the announcement of the Stonewall honor.  In 2010, the Stonewall Book Awards began selecting titles for a Children’s and Young Adult category, and in the years since, only one other graphic novel has been selected, Merey’s a + e 4ever in 2012.

So, let’s discuss!

Robin: What do you think of the awards for Drama?  Deserved?

Brigid: Absolutely! I think the storytelling is first rate. This seems like a more sophisticated book than Smile, with a bigger cast and a more complicated plot. I also liked the fact that the art was a bit more detailed and really conveyed a sense of place. A lot of graphic novels for this age group use simple, generic backdrops, but Raina puts in the clutter, the cinderblock walls, the very specific bits and pieces that make this feel like a real middle school. And her palette shifts from sort of a greenish look in the school scenes (as if it were drenched in fluorescent light) to a warmer color scheme in the the theater scenes.

Robin: I agree Brigid!  It was such a real school, and to me, the group was so in line with all of the kids I knew from theater and the arts in general.  I think the details were grounding in the best possible way, and I hadn’t noticed how much that can be lacking in younger titles until you brought it up.

Caleb: I have no objections to either of those honors. The plotting and characters aren’t terribly deep, but there sure are a lot of each, and Telgemeier juggles them all quite well, giving so fairly major arcs to the primary players and even a great deal of panel-time to the lesser ones, those that mainly fill roles rather than actively participate in the drama of Drama.

I thought it was a blast to read and, as Brigid mentions, Telgemeier’s cartooning is all around incredible. I love how she handles expressions, and how much story and personality information she’s able to suggest by the particular shape of a smile or the angle of an eyebrow.

As for the Stonewall award, I think the book rather deftly handles the sorts of confused, chaste love affairs of junior high, where so much romance can seem like little more than play-acting for adulthood, and it was nice to see some gay kids and confused kids thrown into that world in a matter-of-fact sort of way. That is, it was nice to see gay characters treated exactly like straight characters into the narrative, rather than seeing them deal with angsty sub-plots brought on by being different from some of their classmates. That’s real progress in pop culture: Gay characters who are just characters who are gay, not ones who are just gay.

Robin: Caleb, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head — what makes the Stonewall Award so exciting, at least to me, is that these characters are incidentally gay.  Their sexuality, whatever it may be, far from defines these characters, and that’s rare in any media and especially rare in teen stories where frequently the sexuality of the character is the focus of the story.  For many of the teens I work with, a story in which gay folks are just part of the group, romantic awkwardness and all, is far more engaging than a title that may seem to have an agenda or lecture within.  Not that there isn’t the need for those books too, but it’s nice to think we’ve hit a time where we’re moving beyond the “after school special” type of story.

Esther: I was actually surprised by the Stonewall award, because of what everyone had said. The gay “issue” was so tangential.  It’s not what drove the story. I felt as if it was a minor plot. I almost left it out of my reviews of the book.  But after reading your comments, I can see how my thoughts are what made it award worthy.  As for the GGNT, it would have been a crime if they left this off. It’s a very well done title, both story and artwork are stellar.  And I have not been able to keep it on my shelf.  My copies are continually being checked out.  Her books resonate with middle schoolers.

Scott: I’m a huge fan of this book and I wholeheartedly agree that it completely deserved these honors. I think the Stonewall award is key here, especially since Drama is a book for middle grades. There is very little out there for the middle grade audience that deal with LGBT issues and I’m hoping this book starts a trend that issues of sexuality can be explored in younger works provided they’re done with sensitivity and appropriateness. Drama is a perfect model for further works.

Eva: What Scott said. I’m thrilled it won a Stonewall honor and I’m thrilled it made several of the selection lists (GGNT, Notables, and even ALSC’s Core Collection of Graphic Novels). Because there’s so little out there for the middle grade audience that isn’t preachy or pedantic, that Drama is not only beautifully written and illustrated, but treats its gay characters as characters rather than caricatures is, indeed, notable.

Mike: When I got to read the book, I was instantly transported to my days in high school acting in the musicals. There’s a lot of love for the theater that Raina put in it and you can tell she was a theater geek too growing up. I’m proud of the graphic novel getting the recognition it deserves from the various ALA award committees.

Robin: Were there any awards or honors you hoped Drama might snag that it didn’t?

Caleb: Well, I was hoping it might have won Grammy, but I knew that was always going to be a longshot, seeing as how it was a graphic novel rather than a song and all.

Esther: Sure, I would love to see any great comic garner a big-name award, and I do believe this title was great, but I think it’s made it’s mark.

Scott: I think this is as good a time as any to put it out there that it would be amazing if ALSC had an award specifically for children’s graphic novels. If so, I’d want Drama to win that one.

Eva: In response to a request for an award or separate Notable Graphic Novels for Children list, ALSC has tasked its Quicklists committee with updating annually its Core Collection of Graphic Novels. This year’s update can be found here. It’s not as good as an actual Notables list would be, but it’ll do until ALSC sees the light. Now if they’d just publicize the fact that it exists…

Robin: How do you think the fans of Telgemeier’s breakout book Smile have reacted to Drama?  Does it live up to their expectations?

Brigid: I can’t speak to how everyone else has reacted, but I thought it was a really good followup.

Caleb: Yeah, I can’t say how Smile fans might have reacted, but this particular Smile fan thought it was pretty great, and it even surpassed my expectations. Some of that likely has to do with Telgemeier’s artwork constantly improving with each new project and  part of it, I think, had to do with slightly more universal subject matter. At least, I’ve had more dealings with the appealing and annoying aspects of theater people, and school drama in general, then I’ve had with juvenile dentistry.

Esther:  Those who’ve read Smile ask me for the sequel or the next one in the series. I give them Drama and explain that it’s not a sequel but it’s by the same author/artist and if they like the one, they will like the other. On the other hand, I’m finding that many are picking up Drama and then moving on to Smile.  On an interesting note, for the first time ever one of my 7th graders is doing on author study using Raina’s two books.  I’ve never advocated using comics for this particular assignment, because it’s a challenge to fit in with the requirements, but she’s the perfect GN author/artist to lend itself to this particular assignment.

Scott: Drama isn’t that much of a departure from Smile in terms of tone and content – both are honest portrayals of the universal trials and tribulations of being a tween kid. But we do have to acknowledge that we are living in a very divided world in regards to LGBT issues. I’ve spent time reading through Amazon reviews for Drama and getting angry at posts that discuss how this book forced parents to address topics they felt weren’t appropriate for their children. I think Raina went into this completely aware of the realities of people’s comfort levels with LGBT issues. What’s staggering here is that generally, it’s not the young readers who have issues with the content, it’s the adults. The potential importance and reach of this book totally outweigh the risks of upsetting less tolerant readers.

Eva: My experience has been slightly different from Scott and Esther’s, but I work in a children’s department that serves kids ages 0-14. Raina’s book Smile ages down as easily as it ages up, so I had a lot of precocious third and fourth graders who were fans of her Babysitters Club adaptations read and love Smile. These kids are not nearly as interested in Drama, not because they aren’t interested in reading about middle school/middle schoolers, but because as one of my kids put it, “there’s too much kissing.” The lovely thing is that these kids are NOT objecting to two boys kissing each other, but that there’s kissing at all. They just aren’t ready for this level of cooties.

The older kids, the ones at junior high level, are loving Drama and the book has a very respectable holds list. Many of them are coming to it after reading Smile, others are finding it through word of mouth. I’ve had to do little to no promotion of the book — this one had legs even before coming through the door.

Mike: I think the book holds up well for fans of her books. She has a unique gift to focus on the lives of teens that appeals to a wide range of ages. Now, I do know of some parents who have children who are younger reader fans of her other books (I know a 8-year-old girl who has read Smile so much she has pretty much worn her own copy of the book out) that don’t want their children to read Drama yet – both in part of the LGBT focus as well as the whole aspect of dating. That’s the parents’ decision for readers that young and I think it’s a fair one to make.

Robin: Over the years, librarians, educators, and parents have occasionally complained the that Great Graphic Novels for Teens list one, doesn’t indicate the age range of each title, and two, tends to skew toward older teen.  Drama is solidly middle school age, and thus helps represent the younger end of teen, but also may be actually being read by younger than the teen range.  Do you think Drama belongs on a teen list?  Why or why not?

Brigid: I actually think it’s a bit young for a teen list. Kids usually read up a few years, so the readers of this graphic novel would be in fifth or sixth grade. That seems to fit with the style of the art and the general innocence of the characters—although they are tussling with the issues of tweenagerhood, they strike me as young for middle schoolers. In a real teen book, at least one character would be smoking and cussing.

Caleb: I actually thought the characters were teenagers when I first started reading, based on how smart they were and how elaborate their theater production seemed. I don’t know though, as I imagine it depends on the teens and middle-schoolers. I’m obviously neither, and I enjoyed it and didn’t feel like I was being talked down to at all (One thing I think comics excels at, as pictures are pictures, and the sorts of reading level issues that can be measured by word choice and vocabulary don’t really apply to pictures). I think it’s all-ages in the truest sense of the word, and thus fine for grade-schoolers, high-schoolers and grown-ups.

Robin: Brigid, sadly, I can say that amongst my middle schoolers, I fear that cussing would certainly be more realistic.  Still, I do think for many of my younger teens, this story still works, especially in the spirit of Caleb’s remarks — the characters are more sophisticated and have more complex concerns.  I do have teens ask for it, and I am pleased I have a copy in the teen collection so that they don’t feel awkward heading back to the Children’s collection when they feel they’ve graduated to my space and stories.

Esther: Both of Raina’s titles are mostly being read by my 6th and 7th graders.   7th grade falls solidly in the GGNT age-range guidelines.  And like you said Robin, this is a solid Middle School Title. I wish GGNT had more middle school titles!  I do agree with Caleb, because at first I thought the characters were older.  But the emotions were so clearly middle school.  And for me, I don’t need to read curse words to believe the characters are cursing.  My students can make me blush with some of their language, but they aren’t off-put by a title that doesn’t portray it!

Scott: Until we have Great Graphic Novels for Kids, I’m totally fine with this being on a teen list. I think the great thing about graphic novels is they can be read a wider range of readers than their “official” target audience.

Eva: Seventh and 8th graders are teens. It totally belongs on the GGNT list. It also belongs on ALSC’s Notables/Core lists. Because 7th and 8th graders are also kids.

Mike: It’s got a lot of appeal in that middle school age range, but I do think the book’s getting checked out a lot by older teens too. I know 9th graders who read it and loved it.

Robin: In re-reading Drama for the challenge, I was struck by the fact that it features a pretty remarkable image — two boys kissing on panel in a graphic novel clearly targeted for younger teens.  Given the trigger-fingers of challengers concerning both LGBTQ content and the concern of age appropriateness, I found it incredibly refreshing to see it presented with no apparent qualms from anyone involved in the book’s creation.  Would any of you anticipate this title being challenged for its appropriateness by patrons (by parents)?

Brigid: People can take offense at almost anything, but this book is pretty mild because everything is at the puppy-love stage. There are crushes but no serious relationships, and no one is actually having sex, so the gayness is all theoretical. I also think the matter-of-fact way it is treated reflects the generational shift in attitudes in this country—it simply isn’t that big a deal to be gay any more.

I think Raina does a good job of weaving it into the story, making it just one more complication in the awkward dance of middle-school relationships.

I also want to give a big high-five to the character of Callie, who strikes me as very well rounded, with interests and accomplishments beyond boys and even friends. That’s a good role model for kids heading into the perilous waters of middle school.

Robin: Brigid, it totally passes the Bechdel Test, too!  High five to Callie, most definitely.

Caleb: Yeah, it’s always difficult to think too much about what might offend someone and to try and plan a selection or collection around it, because everything offends someone. And while that particular segment of the population is thankfully shrinking as time marches on, obviously there are some folks that are offended about anything having to do with homosexuality, even just the usage of words like “gay” around kids.  So it’s not hard to imagine a parent or grandparent or community watchdog with that sort of mindset freaking out over the book and demanding it be removed from bookshelves.

Of course, at the same time, they’d have to read the whole thing closely enough to even notice, so I don’t think there’s a whole lot of danger in that.

Looking at that particular panel again now, out of context, the character in the dress during the kiss looks female, so if you don’t read the comic, I’m not sure you’d even notice it on a flip-through. Because of the characters are all so young and because Telgemeier’s style is so cartoony, for the most part a reader needs visual clues to pick up on the exact gender of the many of the characters and, in that scene, the main visual clue to the boy’s gender seems to be the dress, which suggests he’s a girl.

Scott: The reality is we are living in a society where kids are identifying as LGBTQ younger and younger. One of the most important things we can do to combat depression, bullying and suicide is make available materials where kids can see themselves. Like I mentioned earlier, Drama is one of the first middle grade books to address sexuality and does it in such a positive way.

Eva: As I mentioned earlier, none of my kids — or their parents, for that matter — have voiced concerns to me about the Mendocino brothers or any of the other characters in the story. But, I live in the Bay Area, where inclusiveness is the default mode. That said, there was a bit of hubbub when the book first came out (not Scrotumgate levels, but still, hub was bubbed) and I won’t be surprised to hear about challenges when they come. (Some parts of the country don’t move as quickly as others, after all, nor to some librarians/teachers/parents.) The more books we have showing all of society, the better chance we’ll have at providing books that reflect the experiences of all of our readers.

Caleb: Regarding what Brigid mentioned about how well-rounded Callie is, what did you guys think of the ending? I may have just been so trained by so much pop culture to expect a certain sort of ending, but I was a little surprised that for all of the potential boys Callie could have a happy ending  with (of this graphic novel, not her life, obviously), she doesn’t really “win” any of them, but still wins something very important to her.

How refreshing was that to you guys, or did you feel at all bad for her? It seemed the big boy moment for her was not getting over a jerk by finding the right guy, but getting over the jerk simply by realizing he was a jerk (If “jerk” isn’t too strong a word; it’s hard to come down on eighth graders for emotional immaturity, you know?).

Robin: I totally agree, Caleb, that pop culture trains us to expect her to get a guy, but I personally adored how much that isn’t the ultimate point.  I didn’t feel bad for Callie at all.  Unrequited crushes happen all the time, and I very much appreciate that she didn’t end up with the jerk simply because he was the one on offer. (I think jerk is appropriately harsh.)  I hope that ultimately the purpose of the story was her (and the others) realizing just that — that it isn’t right to date someone who isn’t the right fit just to prove you CAN date.

It reminds me a bit of the false push to find romantic pairings in all stories — hence why when everyone kept asking Team Peeta or Team Gale about The Hunger Games, I would reply Team Katniss.  The romance was never the point in The Hunger Games.  Amusingly, I got asked that very question at work and a few folks seemed surprised that Team Katniss was even an option.

Mike: Well, I do disagree with Brigid’s comment about the gayness being theoretical in the book just because we don’t see them having sex, but I think it’s a good book that focuses on the ups and downs of finding love and finding out who you really are. Plus Raina may have just gotten a few more teens into helping out with their school play/musicals – and that’s never a bad thing!

Esther: I’m doing a unit with some 8th graders about censorship and banned book. It’s a project we started during banned books weeks, (believe it or not!).  Anyway, we’ve been discovering that books are challenged and banned for the most inane reasons.  I mean according to the Huffington Post, Brown Bear, Brown Bear was challenged because “the author has the same name as an obscure Marxist theorist, and no one bothered to check if they were actually the same person.”  So nothing really would surprise me.

As for your comments on Callie – I was thrilled that she didn’t end up with anyone. And it is refreshing and a great message to send out to those insecure middle schoolers!

Eva: Amen!

Robin Brenner About Robin Brenner

Robin Brenner is Teen Librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts. When not tackling programs and reading advice at work, she writes features and reviews for publications including VOYA, Early Word, Library Journal, and Knowledge Quest. She has served on various awards committees, from the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards to the Boston Globe Horn Book Awards. She is the editor-in-chief of the graphic novel review website No Flying No Tights.


  1. I work in a Roman Catholic preK-8 school, where students as young as 3rd grade have read and loved SMILE. As soon as I read DRAMA, I knew it would be a problematic read for the younger students. Some of my 3rd and 4th graders are VERY young in their attitudes and in how they have been sheltered in their lives. So I first gave DRAMA to a 6th grade girl who had loved SMILE. She was a bit surprised by the Mendocino brothers, but not terribly bothered. I then gave the book to a total SMILE fan – in 4th grade, she had written a fan letter to Raina that Raina shared at ALA Annual in 2010. She just adored DRAMA, loved all the characters; she’s in 7th grade now. Several other 7th graders then wanted to read it, and then some 8th grade girls wanted to read it. Two more 8th graders have just borrowed my two copies. Interestingly, SMILE appealed to both boys and girls, but so far only girls have wanted to read DRAMA.

  2. As a former high school theater geek, I was thrilled to see this book receiving recognition. Drama feels like fresh perspective on traditional middle school drama, and I was pleasantly surprised to see it recieve a Stonewall honor. I tend to think of Smile as having a younger target audience than Drama, but certainly think that students of all ages can (and should have the option to) enjoy both.

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