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Friday, March 7, 2014

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Book Review: Smile

“[Scholastic] also publish one of the bestselling graphic novels of all time: Smile, by Raina Telgemeier. Last year, she published her second book, Drama. It debuted on the list at #2. What was #1 that week? Smile. Who else has done that? Robert Kirkman, and he had to use a television show to sell that many copies!”

That quote comes from an article by Torsten Adair at The Beat (a comics news site), published earlier this year. Smile was one of a few middle grade graphic novels geared toward kids that I’d been curious about for a long time but never got around to reading. However, seeing this quote piqued my interest. What story would I find within the pages of this New York Times best-seller?
Sixth-grader Raina is about to get braces. She’s not exactly thrilled about becoming a “metal mouth,” as her little sister so eloquently puts it, but things go from bad to worse when an accident knocks out Raina’s two front teeth. So begins an unhappy journey full of dentists, orthodontists, novacaine, wire, rubberbands, and gauze in an attempt to get Raina’s mouth back to normal. While she’s dealing with these quite literal growing pains, Raina navigates the awkwardness and bittersweet trials of transitioning from a girl to a young woman. 

I cannot write this review without my throat burning because the journey Raina goes through is a little too painfully real, all the more so because it actually is real. Smile is a graphic novel memoir about Raina Telgemeier’s adolescence. Like Raina, I wore braces through middle school and part of high school, played the flute, dreamed of becoming an animator when I grew up, and of course experienced plenty of ups and downs with my friends. 

The art—full-color—is adorable, though gruesome at times. Raina’s accident in the first few pages had me squirming in sympathy, and we’re along for every dental visit, which means plenty of glimpses into Raina’s mouth in various stages of healing. This early trauma sets the tone for the rest of the book. Raina is already at a vulnerable point in her life, trying to fit in and discover who she wants to be, and not being able to show off a beautiful smile deals her confidence a heavy blow. 

When we’re not agonizing over the pain of dental work, we’re agonizing over Raina’s social life. Her circle of friends is there for her, but that’s not always a good thing. Raina’s feeling the pressure to be cool and popular. While her friends are talking about shopping, makeup and boys, Raina’s still wearing ponytails and wondering what happened to talking about cartoons. Her friends aren’t ignorant to the difference and frequently tease her for it, especially when they discover the boy(s) that Raina wants to impress. I was surprised to find that Smile offers a lesson in dealing with bullying and how to treat people. Raina makes a few missteps here as well, but we’re able to see how she learns and grows from these experiences. 

Despite constant discomfort and insecurity, Raina keeps a relatively good humor and positive outlook. There are quite a few laughs among the tears. Through it all, Raina’s family remains sympathetic and supportive (for the most part, her little brother and sister have their moments). Her mother dishes out solid advice, and even goes to battle when her daughter is the victim of one periodontist’s negligence. 

Some of the twists are almost too crazy to believe, as Telgemeier mentions in the author’s note at the back of the book. She had been sharing the story with friends for years before deciding to get it down on paper. Some stories just need to be shared, not just for the writer’s sanity, but to help others know they’re not alone. At one point Raina laments being made to wear headgear. Her mother comforts her, telling her that plenty of people wear weird things to fix their bodies, but not everyone talks about it. “Well, maybe someone should start talking about it!” Raina declares. “Maybe it would make us feel less like freaks.” 

I’ve given little thought to my own braces over the yearsI don’t think much about middle school at all, in fact. Reading Smile brought back a lot of memories and made me appreciate how truly resilient we are at that age. I highly recommend it for kids, teens and adults. 

Now that I’ve finished the book, one of my favorite things to do is look at the opening pages, then flip all the way to the end of the book and seeing how much Raina has grown. I smile… and then I cry a lot.

Title: Smile

Author:  Raina Telgemeier

Genre: Middle Grade, Graphic Novel

Recommendation: Yes

Best Reader Audience: All ages

Final Rating: Five out of five dozy foxes

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