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The thing that strikes me the most about Smile is how utterly and completely normal it all is. Telgemeier’s chronicle of her dental problems and general angst during her junior high and high school years, though entertaining, and certainly fraught with melodrama, wouldn’t exactly fall under the realm of trauma, on the same level that, say, Stitches does. And while few of us have had our front teeth knocked out and spent our formative years in a variety of dentists offices, most of have had the other sort of problems Telgemeier narrates, like trouble in school, unrequited crushes, dysfunctional friendships, etc.
Perhaps the most striking thing is how Telgemeier handles these occurrences with relative intelligence and grace. Not that she doesn’t fret mind you, but rather that she so rarely trips herself up on the way to adulthood. So congratulations Mr. and Mrs. Telgemeier. You raised your daughter right.
Of course, such a tale of everyday adolescence isn’t necessarily the stuff from which great, gripping graphic novels are born, and indeed, there are a number of points where the plot seems to slacken a bit. Whenever she’s specifically dealing with her dental woes, she’s spot on, mainly because a) like I said, it’s not a situation many of us are familiar with; and b) she fills these incidents with spot-on details, both visually and verbally, creating some excellent sequences like the part where she faints in the periodontist’s office.
Some of the other bits — the mean friends, the almost-boyfriend, falling in love with The Little Mermaid — suffer by comparison because they don’t have that sharp level of detail. Those sequences, though well-handled enough, lack the sort of insight to make them truly pop out. I kept wanting to know more about Raina’s family and friends. They seemed a bit too generic and ill-defined to make for a strong supporting cast.
Still, there’s no denying Telgemeier’s is rapidly becoming an adept artist and storyteller. Smile constitutes a big step up for her in comparison to her work on The Babysitters Club books,which (the few I read) seemed to all but drown in a sea of unspecificity.
More to the point, to an average teen-age girl, an unrequited crush or bad grade is a really, really big deal, and having to go through school looking “like a vampire” is about as high on the trauma scale as you can get. Telgemeier writes with a good deal of humor and empathy, and her unadorned, rounded, wavy line radiates enough warmth to invite readers seeking that sort of sympathy. In other words, I can imagine a lot of middle school girls who would treasure a book like Smile.