As tweenaged Raina prepared for the growing pains of getting braces while beginning middle school, a surprise fall on a sidewalk knocked out her two front teeth. The autobiographic comic novel Smile by Raina Telgemeier (Graphix, 2010) is her growing-up story. It mixes the discomfort of growing up, the disappointment of changing friendships, and the self-conscious difficulties of “finding a place” into the clear narrative of fixing her broken smile.
For me, middle school was a time when smiling started to become more difficult. Part of this was the rising teenage angst, but it was also being in an unfamiliar new setting and discovering that friends had grown and changed without me. Raina’s Smile takes the true events of early teenage-hood and uses the broken smile as a metaphor for finding her place. At that age, there is so much anxiety about being liked and approved of. Feeling awkward and finding the right “circle” is already difficult. Messed up teeth obviously made it even more difficult for Raina due to the additional self-consciousness. Yet, by the end of the graphic novel, high schooler Raina feels more sincere in her circle of friends, enough to even smile without remembering her whole teeth ordeal.
The author might roll her eyes at the word “metaphor.” She told her story, so it may not have felt like a metaphor while living or telling it. But the smile does become a perfect frame for entering the most awkward time of life, a time when you already obsess about what everyone thinks of you. Just as all of us somehow manage to make it past the self-consciousness and into adulthood, Raina’s broken teeth eventually were corrected into a normal-ish smile. In both ways she had changed: she had found a new crowd of friends and pursued her own interests without worrying about what other people thought of her, and she had suffered the years of mouth discomfort to finally have a nothing-out-of-the-ordinary smile. Four years of teeth trauma simply aligned with four years of awkward-to-comfortable, or tweenager-to-teenager.
Smile, then, is a wonderfully framed and formed story about growing up. It’s story will be universally understood by kids and adults alike, because such a metamorphosis is what every kid must go through. It’s a humorous and true-to-life tale great for kids 8 and up. Younger children might not appreciate the subtleties of having a crush and being so self-conscious, but those entering tweenage and teenage stage will simply revel in the universality of “I’m not alone!”
Received the Will Eisner Award in 2011, for best graphic novel for teens