By Raina Telgemeier
224 pages, color
Published by Graphix/Scholastic Books
If you ask someone for a story about going to the dentist, chances are they’re going to have a nightmare experience to tell you all about. I think having no bad dental stories either means you have an incredible amount of luck, you aren’t that old just yet, or you don’t go to the dentist. So on that note alone, there’s an instant hook for people to read Smile, Raina Telgemeier’s autobiographical story centered around a particularly nasty dental drama when she was a teenager. But in the case of Smile, it’s actually more of a window dressing for what I think is the real story at the center of the book, and that’s what makes it so compelling.
Smile follows Telgemeier from sixth through ninth grade, a time that just about everyone knows can be tumultuous under the best of circumstances. So as Telgemeier gets her two front teeth knocked out and begins a several-year ordeal to get her teeth back to normal without having to resort to dentures, it’s turning what would have been a stressful time into something that feels far worse. Watching her deal with her group of friends, and trying to find a balance between what she views as "childish" and "adult" is something that will ring true for far too many readers, I suspect. Junior and Senior High School seems to be that time when we shed some friends in favor of new ones that are a better fit, and it’s actually painful to watch Telgemeier go through this while having to worry about her teeth. Telgemeier avoids any temptation to whitewash her own behavior during this time period; she makes mistakes at times on who to hang out with, she blows it with a boy who’s interested in her, she acts selfish during difficult times. In other words, she acts like a teenager. It’s a well-rounded portrait of someone growing up during a stressful time.
Of course, the dental aspects of Smile are always front and center. I actually found this part of the story fascinating, to see the decisions that her dentist, orthodontist, and endodontist made to try and give her front teeth without having to resort to an eleven year old having dentures. Telgemeier takes us through every decision and procedure, explaining the reasoning behind the new ideas and how well they work. Some of them are pretty unorthodox, and I think it’s safe to say that unless you’ve got a doozy of a dental nightmare of your own to tell everyone about, you’ll be surprised by just what goes on here.
Smile‘s art looks deceptively simple, but hides a surprising amount of detail. From bashful looks as she sneaks a glance at boys, to blistering anger when a so-called friend wrongs her, Telgemeier shows a wide range of emotions on her alter-ego’s face. I love how everyone looks different and distinct from one another, to say nothing of the setting of Smile. The San Francisco Bay Area bursts to life in her drawings; I’ve only been there a few times but I found myself feeling like I was back on the west coast and seeing the sights all over again. She’s good with motion, too; the scene where the earthquake shakes everything in the Telgemeier family home is energetic, but even scenes with a character stomping across the page gives a strong sense of movement. After seeing The Little Mermaid Telgemeier tells a friend she wants to become an animator, and it definitely feels like she’s managed to do just that.
I’ve been reading Telgemeier’s comics for a long time, now. Not just books like her X-Men manga project or the Baby-Sitter’s Club adaptations, but her mini-comics and web comics as well. It’s been fun watching her hone her craft and become an accomplished creator (and New York Times Bestselling Author, it seems!), but I’ll admit that lately I’ve been waiting for Smile to show up more than anything else. I’d read about half of the book when it was being serialized online, and it was a real treat to see it come to a conclusion. From Nintendo to the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, it’s a vivid flashback to an earlier time in both Telgemeier’s life as well as my own. This is a sharp, strong book that I hope does gangbusters in terms of sales. Interestingly enough, based on the book’s cover and dimensions, it looks like Scholastic is going to try and get it shelved with prose books for young adults, and if that means a larger audience than I applaud them for it. This is a book I would have adored as a teenager, but even though I’m over twice the age of that target audience it’s still a joy to read.