Pain Is The Great Teacher: Smile

Posted by on June 21st, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Raina Telgemeier; Scholastic; 244 pp., $10.99; Hardcover, Color; ISBN-13: 978-0545132060

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Raina Telgemeier’s graphic memoir Smile purports to be about her dental nightmares as a pre-teen and teen, a specific period that gives the book a certain sturdy structure.  At the same time, entirely by design, there’s a second narrative that doesn’t coalesce until the end of the book. Both of these plots are unusual for young adult stories, and Telgemeier takes a calculated risk in arranging the elements of what seems to be a slice-of-life story into a coherent narrative with some sharp, direct points to make.  According to Telgemeier, her book has been wildly popular at Scholastic book fairs and with fourth-fifth graders; this is precisely because the specific details she relates are so easy to understand and empathize with.

The first narrative track begins when sixth-grader Raina slips, falls and loses her two front teeth, and goes on through her getting braces and their eventual removal.  The level of specificity with which Telgemeier details the rigors of the experience is one of the most fascinating aspects of the book.  It seems clear that Telgemeier wants to share her pain as a way of helping others.  In the story, her mother notes “Lots of kids wear funny stuff to help fix their bodies…you probably just don’t realize it because no one talks about it.”  Young Raina exclaims, in a statement of purpose,  “Well, maybe someone should start talking about it!  Maybe it would make us feel less like freaks.”

Telgemeier’s line has always been extraordinarily light, cartoony and expressive.  There have generally been two problems with her approach on the page for her longer stories.  First, her line is so airy that it can appear insubstantial. That was a problem with her Baby-Sitters Club adaptations, as her line lacked the weight at times to anchor its characters.  Smile solves this problem by being in color.  In particular, color makes her character designs pop, which in turn aids with her other problem: action.

While Telgemeier’s always been adept at gesture and characters relating to each other in the space of a panel, she’s not been known for depicting motion or frantic emotion.  In Smile, being able to lean on color for part of the storytelling seems to loosen her up a bit.  The scenes where Raina is in an orthodontist’s chair are surprisingly visceral, with Telgemeier unleashing an exaggerated line almost reminiscent of Peter Bagge at times.  When the orthodontist yanks the wires on her braces and tightens them, Telgemeier makes the reader feel that unique, helpless pain, thanks to odd angles, facial contortions and flop sweat.  The scene where Raina has her teeth knocked out, but is laughing hysterically, is another affecting moment, as her worried mother understands that she is in shock.

Just as interesting is the way Telgemeier slowly and carefully portrays her relationship with her childhood friends.  The usual arc of books like this finds one’s friends playing an important, supportive role, even if there are conflicts (the Baby- Sitters Club is the obvious classic example).  In Smile, readers are introduced to Raina’s friends when they’re all still affable Girl Scouts, but she subtly incorporates the casual viciousness that teenagers are capable of as they grow older.  While her friends become obsessed with clothes, boys and makeup, Raina longs to keep thinking about cartoons.

The result of being less “mature” than her friends starts to make Raina a target for joking-but-not-joking putdowns and pranks.  Telgemeier is careful to not tip her hand too early about the ways in which these moments discourage her and stunt her confidence.  Indeed, when her friends first tell her to lighten up, there’s very much a sense that she doesn’t have much of a sense of humor about herself.  The more one is made a scapegoat, however, the easier and more irresistible it is for others in the group to pile on.  As the girls grow older, the nature of their pranks became crueler.  There’s one especially nasty sequence where they talk Raina into a “makeover” because it would impress the guy she has a crush on, only to laugh out loud at the spectacle of Raina wearing a tube top, fishnet stockings and an absurd amount of makeup.

Still, Raina’s interactions with her friends are a background element compared to her “dental drama” and fumbling attempts at trying to interact with the opposite sex.  One sequence where she badly handles a younger boy’s crush on her is important because it shocks the reader into realizing that this sympathetic figure is as capable of cruelty as anyone in the book.  Readers looking to her as a sort of stand-in may be distanced just a bit in that regard, though her capacity for mistakes makes her even easier to identify with in some respects.  As high school begins for Raina, the usual trope of new beginnings, roles and possibilities is quickly subverted as she realizes that not only is her role as a punching bag for her friends still intact, she learns that none of them even liked her enough to seek her out over the previous summer.

Telgemeier pulls another neat trick out toward the end that ties together with the conclusion of her dental odyssey.  When Raina marches off in a huff after her friends tease her about her mouthwash and other dental gear, two of them sneak up behind her and pull her skirt down.  This goes beyond a simple gag or teasing someone about their insecurities straight into cruelty.  This time, Raina confronts her friends, and when no apologies are forthcoming, she walks away from them.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen this kind of moment portrayed this way in a YA book, where instead of a cliché ending, where her friends apologize and see Raina’s worth, the friends are simply cut out of her life.

That burst of self-confidence dovetails with her growing confidence in her identity as an artist as well as her braces coming off.  While Raina still thinks her teeth look grotesque, her new friends assure her they’re fine, and the now-confident Raina eagerly attends a dance and smiles for a photo.  In essence, and in high-concept terms, this book is about how Raina got her smile back.  When the book focuses on her school relationships and her dental woes, it is at its strongest.  However, the scenes with her family don’t feel like they belong in quite the same way.  Her brother and sister seem like ciphers after early indications that they might play a more significant role.  An extended scene illustrating her experience with the San Francisco earthquake of 1989 feels out of place and distracts from the book’s main storytelling beats.

The only family relationship that feels fleshed out to a larger extent is that of Raina with her mother.  There is a back-and-forth set of exchanges that make them seem like sparring partners as much as mother and daughter.  Telgemeier goes out of her way to depict the ways in which they did not understand each other or know how to properly communicate.  That said, the scene where Raina’s mother screams at a doctor for causing Raina to faint after a botched gum cleaning brings their relationship into sharper focus, as it becomes clear what her mother would do for her.

What I like best about Smile is that it use exaggeration without delving into hyperbole, it gets across its message without being didactic, and it subverts certain expectations while still working within the familiar framework of a coming-of-age story.  Even with what is depicted as a functional family living in relative comfort, there is still stress and melancholy to be found simply in individuals having to deal with the sovereignty of teenage pack behavior.  Smile is about a girl trying to figure out how to be happy and comfortable with herself, but only finds herself getting there when she learns to let go of old obsessions.  Telgemeier creates a clean, attractive look for her book that is still able to pack in a host of emotions, both positive and negative.  As in most of the best autobiographical comics, those emotions are sifted through experiences great and small, allowing the reader to focus on the power of the individual moment before the book’s climax.  The attractiveness of Telgemeier’s line and her easy facility with teenage dialogue made the journey as worthwhile as the destination.

all images ©2010 Raina Telgemeier

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2 Responses to “Pain Is The Great Teacher: Smile

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