By Raina Telgemeier
240 pages, color
Published by Graphix/Scholastic Books
After the wild (and deserved) success of Raina Telgemeier’s autobiographical Smile, it was safe to say that hopes were high for her new graphic novel Drama. Unlike her previous books for Scholastic, it was neither a retelling of Telgemeier’s own life or someone else’s stories (her adaptations of Ann M. Martin’s Baby-Sitter’s Club books). But in cutting loose and telling a story about middle school students in drama club, I think that Telgemeier’s pushed her way into proving to readers that she’s not a one-hit wonder.
Smile follows Callie, a seventh-grader who loves everything about the theatre but also knows her own limitations and stays behind the scenes to work on the technical crew. As the club begins to work on a production of Moon over Mississippi to round out the school year, Callie finds herself not only consumed with the production of the show itself, but also the people involved. Relationships (both romantic and just friendly) grow and dwindle, technical aspects continue to be problematic, and all sorts of surprises are just waiting to surface. In short… welcome to junior high.
I’ve joked before that the reason why junior high/middle school only encompasses two or three grades (instead of four to six) is because teenagers going through puberty need to be isolated from the rest of the world, but of course there’s more than a grain of truth to that statement. Telgemeier captures that confusing time in a teen’s life—as you and all of your peers are simultaneously going through surges of hormones—with startling accuracy in Drama. Callie throughout the course of the book makes friends, has fights, picks the boy of her dreams, picks a different boy of her dreams, and fumbles her way through the school year. This is, as anyone who can remember middle school, a transcript of about half of the students’ life at any given establishment. But as Callie makes mistakes (and also triumphs), what’s nice is that Telgemeier never has to resort to Callie being stupid. That’s an easy out in so many books like this, but Drama avoids that annoying pitfall. Instead Callie’s blunders (as big or small as they are) occur out of not having gathered enough information about others or even herself. As Drama moves through the production of Moon over Mississippi, Callie learns and grows but without any sort of saccharine aftertaste.
It helps that Drama has a strong supporting cast to move through the story with Callie. Telgemeier gives the meat of the story to her—the flashback explaining how Callie first fell in love with the theatre and over the years grew a great appreciation is just one strong and memorable moment—but that’s not to say that others can’t join in. Twins Justin and Jesse get a good part to play here as well; they’re not only facilitators for information about Callie (like their trips to the different bookstores), but each of them help her grow in their own way. Though Jesse gets more of a spotlight than Justin, both of them get their own character moments within Callie’s story. Justin’s early coming-out to Callie (obvious to most savvy readers well before it happens, but surprising to the still-learning Callie) is a strong emotional scene even as it’s necessary to the plot. It’s Jesse explaining how he’s trying to show everyone that he and Justin have their own identities at the expense of suppressing similarities between him and his twin that ends up being one of the most memorable moments of the book, though. It’s as much of an "aha" moment as it is a little sad, and it helps define a lot of Jesse’s own story as it interweaves with Callie’s.
Some of the more minor characters don’t get quite as much, but even then there’s enough of a defining characteristic to show us how Callie sees them. Callie’s little brother and mother are prime examples of this; because it’s all through Callie’s eyes, her brother is an annoying chatterbox and her mother is little more than a presence. They don’t have a large enough role in Callie’s life (yet) that she pays attention to them at the same level that her friends in school do, and it fits. If anything, Telgemeier helps define these smaller characters through her art. Richard’s eagerness at being around Callie is reflected in his manic movement and excitement that just radiates off the page; Callie might not be able to see her brother as more than a pest, but Telgemeier subtly shows it to us.
Some other artistic moments are a little more blatant. When Callie is showing Jesse her favorite coffee table book about the history of theatre, she drops the duo of them into the pages of the book and the moments that it depicts. It’s a fun way to show Callie’s obsession and desire to become part of the book’s world, but in a way that avoids heavy-handed narration. In general, Telgemeier’s expressions are also somewhat blatant, but that’s a good thing. Few characters have a poker face; instead they light up with smiles or collapse into frowns and tears. It’s something that I’ve always loved about Telgemeier’s art; when characters are happy, it radiates so strongly off the page that it ultimately feels infectious and the whole book smiles with them. The Gurihiru studio provides the colors for Drama and they’re a strong match for Telgemeier’s art; bright and impressive without overshadowing the lines. Even the lettering is nice; it’s mostly unobtrusive, but at the same time gets to take center stage when Callie performs her audition, at which point it crackles and blisters to show just how horrific that moment is.
Drama is another strong book from Telgemeier. It’s fun to see her writing one set in the present day; she incorporates technologies like cell phones and instant messaging into the narrative and keeps it a little more contemporary for her audience. At the same time, though, Drama is ultimately a book with a timeless message. As Callie maneuvers the pitfalls of middle school and finally is able to make the right decisions for herself, it’s a story that any and everyone can relate to, even as it includes a strong thread of inclusiveness inside of the bigger picture. Down to its charming opening and closing curtain moments (both figuratively and literally), Drama is a strong production from start to finish. Highly recommended.