Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Smile

Scholastic/Graphix, paperback, 215 pages, $ 10.99

Writer/artist: Raina Telgemeier
Colorist: Stephanie Yue

The book collects the webcomic Smile (A Dental Drama), published in serial form from 2004 through 2009.

One of the pitfalls for autobiographical stories is to place too much emphasis on the "autobiographical" part and not enough on the "story" part. That's where Smile falls short for me, too—not in the sense that writer/artist Raina Telgemeier should have made stuff up to have a more exciting narrative, but in the sense that much of Smile reads like it's simply being recounted, rather than dramatized and reflected upon.

Which, I guess, is perfectly fine if that's what you want to do. I certainly wasn't bored with the comic—the smooth, inviting style makes the characters immediately likable, and the story is easy to follow. More than that, Ms. Telgemeier manages to create a real urgency that propels you through the book. You want to know What Happens Next, because it's so easy to identify with the characters it's happening to.

But that said, the book stays at the surface throughout. It doesn't really give you a sense who precisely Raina—the protagonist—is, other than the girl who stumbles and knocks out her two front teeth in sixth grade and has a perfect smile again in high school. We certainly learn, in great detail, how she gets from point A to point B, and some of the other things that happened to her along the way, but in terms of what it all means to her, or what it could mean to anyone else, Smile doesn't have many insights to impart.

And by the time you turn the final page, that's a disappointment, no matter how entertaining it may have been to get there. As it turns out, the story really is about little Raina's dental history, and not much of anything else. At times, there are attempts to go beyond that, but they seem half-hearted.

The story acknowledges that the affections of teenage kids can be fickle, for instance, but that's as far as it delves into the matter, and it doesn't tie it into the larger issue of the dental troubles, either.

There's an attempt to formulate a lesson on what friendship really means towards the end, which just draws attention to the overall haphazardness of the narrative—it's portrayed like a step towards emancipation for Raina, but because the story never supplies enough set-up or context to calibrate Raina's reaction, the development seems mostly jarring.

Likewise, the inclusion of the earthquake episode (the story is set in San Francisco) might have served as a nice way of putting Raina's dental issues in perspective, but other than a token realization that "losing a couple of teeth isn't the end of the world," the story doesn't get a lot of mileage out of that, either.

I'm sure a lot of kids and their parents will rightfully agree that Smile is an entertaining, well-made, easy-to-like book with easy-to-like characters and agreeable lessons, in so far as they result from the plot and the way the characters explicitly react to them. That said, though, it's somewhat disappointing that Ms. Telgemeier doesn't reach farther, and that the motivation for a lot of what's in the book seems to start and end with "and then this happened."

Grade: C+

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