Raina Telgemeier, previously known for her excellent work adapting the The Baby-Sitters Club into four graphic novels, tells in Smile her own teen story, one of much dental trauma.
One night, sixth-grader Raina trips and falls at a Girl Scout meeting. She hits the ground, is shaken for a moment, but sits up thinking everything’s ok … until she sees blood on the ground. Her front teeth are gone.
(A personal note: about the same age, I had a similar, although less serious, accident, and it happened exactly that way. I fell on a tile floor, and both my front teeth were cracked off. Only I didn’t know what had happened until my mother saw me and was shocked. I was lucky — mine could be rebuilt, and no nerves were exposed. The reconstruction technique used on p174 was what was done for me.)
Now, at a time when she’s dealing with all kinds of other changes — friends, school, boys — Raina has to put up with headgear, surgeries, and other scary techniques in an attempt to restore her smile. The kids are just beginning to worry about how they appear to other people, but they’re still young enough to ask her all kinds of prying questions without thought of how she might feel about all this unwelcome attention.
The artist Raina shows all this without shying away from the frightening events, but her cartoony style is also welcoming to younger readers. It allows her to exaggerate slightly for emotional impact — it’s always obvious what her characters are feeling — and it keeps everything from being too scary. When things get too much, the reader can always flip to the back of the book, where the author’s photo shows us her now-beautiful smile, reminding us that everything turned out ok, eventually.
In the story, though, she’s got an external reminder of feeling like a kid, with her now-childish gapped smile. Unfortunately, that’s at a time when she’s facing lots of other choices about trying to seem more grown up. She wants to get her ears pierced. She has to get braces. All of her friends are approaching adolescence at different rates of speed, and sometimes she feels left behind. Being 12 is a real turning point in life, and the best part of the book is the way teenage Raina learns to make her own choices.
As she prepares for high school, Raina has her first crush and finds out what she wants to do when she grows up. She also learns how to tell real friends from those who simply hang out with you because it’s convenient. I like the way this story, because it’s autobiographical, doesn’t progress in a neat arc — instead, there are false starts and changes in direction. Raina’s a sympathetic heroine, more interested in doing things than worrying about her appearance, which takes her in a different direction from some of her friends. Her external changes mirror her internal coming-of-age. (The publisher provided a review copy.)