By Raina Telgemeier
There are few things so universal in a young person’s life as a fear of the dentist. Even for those who have managed to coast by with little more than a twice-yearly cleaning, there’s a certain dread that inevitably comes with entire process. While Raina Telgemeier insists in her author’s note that she’s “not afraid of dentists or dental work,” one can only imagine the effect that the artist’s own real-life “dental drama” had on her formative years.
In a sense, her own experiences in the world of dentistry were rather atypical, a fairly straightforward experience with the orthodontist having been hijacked when she tripped and fell on the way to a friend’s house, knocking out her two front teeth. What followed were several years of increasingly complex dental procedures–a slew of retainers, false teeth, and professionals with unpronouncable job descriptions, save for the ever-familiar -dontist suffix. In all, it’s enough to make the vast majority of us thankful for our relatively painless experiences in the dentist’s chair.
But while Telgemeier’s own dental experiences were certainly a touch horrific, Smile is not a book aimed at wallowing in one’s own personal miseries. Rather, the artist’s own dental drama is something of a springboard, which Telgemeier uses to explore some of the more universal aspects in the life the average teenage girl in America. Smile is as much a story about crushes, popularity, sibling squabbles, and awkward phases as it is the tale of the gap between her lateral incisors.
It is, in a sense, an open letter from Telgemeier to her 12-year-old self. Yeah, becoming a teenager sucks for most of us, but don’t worry, things get better–the braces do their trick, the acne medications take effect, and, if all goes according to plan, you settle into your place in the complex ecosystem that is high school.
For Telgemeier, Smile is also clearly the work of an artist honing her craft. The book was originally serialized online, beginning in 2004. In the intervening years, the author signed on to adapt the classic YA series, The Baby-sitter’s Club, into graphic novels working on four titles in that series in tandem with Smile. As the Raina on the book’s pages come of age, so too does her artist’s craft. Telgemeier maintains a familiar aesthetic throughout–a style not too far removed from her work on The Baby-sitter’s Club–but her work becomes notably more refined as the pages progress.
Taken on a whole, Smile is a fairly typical coming of age story–but its precisely the book’s familiarity that lends it its power. One would be hard-pressed to find a teenage girl in this country who couldn’t find plenty to relate to within its pages. It’s a happy reprieve from the manner of escapist fantasy that seems far more common targeted at the book’s recommended readership.
Given the Smile‘s nature as a trial-by-fire guide in making comics for its author, the book is a bit too rough around the edges to place it in amongst the Judy Blumes of the world, but for readers in the right place at the right time, it may well become every bit as important as a guide to navigating the troubled waters of one’s early teenage existence.