Smile

Created by: Raina Telgemeier

Published by: Scholastic

ISBN: 0545132053 (Amazon)

Pages: 224

Genre: Memoir/Autobio, Young Adult

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Smile

Braces sucked. From sixth through the beginning of eighth grade, I wore braces. Not brackets, but bands. On every tooth. Errant wires carved totems of the soft tissue at the back of my jaw—sacred designs that I’m sure exist there to this day. My smiles looked of cold steel. My jaw hurt from aggressive application of rubber bands. And my teeth would not get clean. At the end of those two years, I had the perfect smile—or at least the perfect teeth with which to perform that kind of smile had I known how to do such a thing in eighth grade. A quarter-century later and I still have the physical tools with which to enact the perfect smile as well as something of the social gearwork to make my attempts less ghastly. Braces, for me, worked their magic. And I’m still not sure it was worth it.

Still, regardless of how difficult my own experience was, those pains, miseries, and woes pale when compared to the manifold sorrows with which Raina Telgemeier’s young life was cursed. The author, when she was in sixth grade, fell and did substantial damage to her two front teeth. Knocked one out and smashed the other one up into the gumline. I’m getting queasy just writing about it because as Telgemeier relates the event and immediate aftermath in her autobio comic, Smile, the whole experience is rather harrowing. I’m not usually one to blanch at grusome displays of violence in either prose or comics or film or art. Caravaggio’s Judith leaves me nonplussed. Murakami’s manskinner in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is exciting but never nauseating. And the cannibalistic humour in Chew is merely amusing. But Telgemeier’s recountment of her accident, the blood, the immediate visit to the dental surgeon, the x-rays showing where her missing tooth went—it all made me a bit faint.

Smile by Raina Telgemeier

Fortunately, all that was just the first fifteen pages or so. After that, Smile shifts into something not dissimilar to the common Young Adult exploration of junior-high– and then high-school–insecurities. The drama of growing up and all that. Only: young Raina also has much more orthodontic work in her immediate future than would the average kid suffering the slings and arrows of burgeoning puberty. Telgemeier balances the telling between school drama and mouth drama nicely—though it helps the reader to know that this is not just a story but that it is Telgemeier’s story. Through Raina, the author relives a streamlined and story-driven version of her own life and makes it palatable for general audiences.

Smile by Raina Telgemeier

If I have one complaint about the book, it’s that its lessons seem too pat, its morals too well-placed. The whole experience is very After School Special—not in that this is a story ineptly told (for Telgemeier is obviously well-skilled and the book well-crafted), but simply because everything fits together so very nicely. Which we don’t often come to expect from biography. Lives are too messy to be retold so crisply. Of course, it may be possible that Telgemeier really lives in the sweetness that lifts so pleasantly from Smile's pages. To that, then, my criticism is not so much that the history Telgemeier relates is not believable, but instead that it’s just not complicated enough. It doesn’t leave much for the reader to think on once the last page is turned.

But that most likely wasn’t Teglemeier’s intent and her audience plausibly isn’t a cynical guy who’s more than twenty years older than Smile's principle figure. So make of that what you will.

Smile by Raina Telgemeier

To its fortune, Smile is a brisk read for all its pages and will keep most readers interested enough to finish the book in a single sitting. The book paces well and even the pieces that seemed familiar or predictable always escape feeling formulaic or contrived. And Telgemeier makes Raina into a sympathetic character who, even when at her most pathetic or bratty, is someone you kind of just want to hold on to and take care of.

Telgemeier’s art is lively and fluid and she seems to have little trouble putting her characters into whatever circumstance her story demands of them. Most impressive to me was how she allows her characters to age visibly. Raina begins as a small girl involved in Girl’s Scouts, but soon makes the transition to junior high and then across that gulf of development into high school.

Smile by Raina Telgemeier

Telgemeier uses numerous visual cues to help us keep Raina’s age straight. More than just the eventual appearance of breasts (the lazy artist’s cue of choice), Raina’s face, hair, and carriage all shift naturally as she matures. In the final pages, as her ordeal comes to a close, she has apparently grown up and has transitioned from childhood into young womanhood.

I had trouble deciding whether Smile was Good or just Ok. At the end of the day, the book really is something of a trifle, an entertaining yarn that sits pretty firmly in the YA tradition of non-challenging reads. But simultaneously, Telgemeier does a good job at what she sets out to do and the care with which she treats her characters is evident throughout. And while Smile is ostensibly about overcoming a dental crisis, it also explores our common inability to be happy due to our common inadequacies. Smile points out that our reliance upon the things that sour us to life is often entrenched simply because those things are comfortable. In any case, while to adults Smile may just be an entertaining read, to its targeted demographic the book may read like a manual to no longer being miserable.

 

Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:

3 Stars = Good
2 Stars = Ok
1 Star = Bad

I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.

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