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posted February 8, 2010


Creator: Raina Telgemeier
Publishing Information: Scholastic, softcover, 224 pages, February 2010, $10.99
Ordering Numbers: 9780545132080 (ISBN13)

Smile is a perfectly nice graphic novel that I'm sure a lot of young people and people who like reading works primarily aimed at young people will love. It tells the story of the author's adolescence, primarily through the massive amount of dental work she had done -- almost solely that way in terms of structure. As is usually with the case with autobiography, the parts I liked best were grounded in specific observation: Raina being offered a toy one last time despite being too old for her childhood dentist, for instance, the rocky recovery that a kid must undergo when eating habits are altered and drugs are involved, or the subtle family politics that shimmer to the surface during this kind of ordeal. The same way that reading about Sally Brown's amblyopia gave me a better understanding as to why certain kids had an eye covered for weeks at a time, or at least normalized it for me, I can imagine that reading this stuff if I had been going through these things or had known kids with more dental drama than I happened to encounter would have been an overall good.

Although it may risk my appearing to be the guy who just pushed someone off a swing set -- the book is that nice -- I thought the rest of Smile really failed to match the specific, focused and occasionally idiosyncratic work with the dental issues. The sequences about finding friends that respect you, or what happens when you stop liking someone you were so glad liked you at one point, or the pages on the San Francisco earthquake, all of them failed to capture my attention for their accrued detail or for having anything of particular interest to say about what seem like pretty standard rites of passage. Their presentation felt hurried, devoid of significant conflict and in a few cases even contrived for a lack of verisimilitude the expectations of which were raised by the material about Raina's teeth. If there's some thematic connection between the high-concept focus of Smile and the broader life portrayed in the unpacking of that concept, I never caught on. I also thought most of the side characters one-note and predictable, which was odd in that I imagine they're based on real people. I'm aware that this book was aimed at an audience younger than I am and will be of specific interest to a group of readers whose experiences I have not shared; like I wrote, I'm confident a lot of people will like to love it. It just didn't feel memorable to me in the fashion that the best comics work for younger readers can cut through differences in perspective, time and place.