Recent Posts

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Big Changes

Raina Telgemeier's Smile is about big changes in a young girl's life. No, not those kinds of changes (although as a father to two girls I'll have my share of those awkward moments). We're talking instead about subtler changes, hinted at from the start by the book's cover, which features a brace-clad smiley face. From Scholastic's Booktalk:
Aah, hanging out with your friends. You laugh. You go shopping. You have sleepovers and you always have fun. Well, imagine this: you and your friends are chasing each other one day and you trip. When you fall, you hit the cement. You hit the cement so hard that you knock out your two front teeth! This is exactly what happens to the character of Raina in the graphic novel Smile by Raina Telgemeier.
After an emergency trip to Dr. Golden's office, the dentist glues Raina's teeth back into her mouth. He covers them in gauze that soon becomes soggy and gross. When Raina takes off the gauze, she discovers that the teeth have been inserted too far. Now she looks like a vampire! Going to school looking like a vampire will definitely make boys notice her, but not in a good way.
While the book on its simplest level is the story of Raina's teeth trials, on a much larger level it's the story of a girl who struggles to maintain her own identity while still fitting in. One part I particularly love is when Raina comes to the realization that she has to move on from her former friends, who are acting less and less supportive, to a new circle of friends in high school. These transitions happen in real life, of course, but less often in middle school lit. Too often we're offered a much simpler, pat solution.

I love Smile for a number of reasons:
  • It fits in with my year-long theme of Survival. While it's not survival in the life-and-death sense of The Devils' Arithmetic, it's as authentic (but not as gritty as) The Outsiders. Personally I'd rather face a multitude of other dangers before ever agreeing to be a middle school girl! Other themes for this book include Identity, Acceptance, Affiliation, Change, Coming of Age, Conflict, Choices, Relationships, Loyalty, Conformity, Belonging, and Differences.
  • Its autobiographical format makes it more authentic. Truth is absolutely stranger than fiction, and we feel for our protagonist here because she is so true-to-life. (Learn more about Raina at her site).
  • The narrative flows without gaps. Many graphic novels assume that readers will be able to plug bill holes between frames. At no time, however, does Telgemeier leave us wondering what we missed.
  • The overall design and illustration are flawless. My six year-old was so taken with the illustrations that she squirreled away with the book for two hours, and "read" it from cover to cover, reading, of course, just those words she could. (She then asked to have it read aloud to her before bed each night). To get a good feel for the book's flow, check out this video trailer from Scholastic.
  • Scholastic has printed it in standard paperback, rather than oversize, format. This not only allows the book to handled more easily, but avoids the look of a graphic novel. Some students would rather their friends see them with a chapter book than a "comic book." See how cruel middle school can be?
  • It uses comic conventions. Thus readers who are successful with this book may move on to other graphic novels, which in turn will keep them reading. (Need some suggestions? Check out this previous post on Graphic Novels and New Literacies from this site).
  • Scholastic has provided a very cool Make Your Own Smile Graphix site (see the screen shot here) where students can manipulate scenes, characters, objects, and speech bubbles to create their own stories.
A conference attendee once asked if I'd use a graphic novel (like Smile) for a classroom study, but I know full well that students would race to the end of their own. But I guess that's a good thing, right? And that's also why my classroom shelves boast a nice supply of these books.