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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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Smile - Raina Telgemeier

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


Smile is a sweet middle-grade graphic novel chronicling the author/illustrator's ordeal with dental treatments and braces from 6th grade through her freshman year in high school--a tough time socially, even for those who aren't dentally challenged. Since it's autobiographical, the story arc is somewhat linear, and not terribly moving or surprising--real life doesn't have the same beauty and impact and satisfying circularity as fiction--but it will resonate as "real" to children, and perhaps be helpful in their grappling with some of the issues of burgeoning adolescence. The struggles the character goes through are very relatable: fears about fitting in, worries about her appearance, bullying, standing up for herself, and finding her passion. 


The illustrations are cute, colorful, and breezy to scan as you're reading, and I appreciated the hand-lettering (rather than a computer font). I was interested that the coloring was done by another artist. It's common with manga, but not so much with first graphic novels in the U.S.


Like many graphic novels, this was first serialized online--as a weekly webcomic on girlamatic.com--and it unfortunately shows in the pacing. There are segments that aren't really important to the plot: an unnecessary chronicling of "nothing happening." Telgemeier may have been stumped for her weekly installment at points ("The summer between 7th and 8th grade was mostly uneventful...the weather was cold so I stayed inside a lot..."), and the ex-post editing didn't smooth out these kinks. In general I think the strategy GN publishers have of turning webcomics into books ignores the massive importance of editing the script before illustrating. But I digress.


As an example of the "meh" of real life compared with fictional life, the thread where 6th-grade Sammy likes 7th-grade Raina is relatively unexplored. Raina is flattered by his attention, has a small crush on him, and then turns her (in this case unrequited) affections to basketball star Sean. Sammy sort of fizzles away. ("Sammy never spoke to me again after that. Which I guess I deserved.") But then nothing happens with Sean, either: "I didn't 'get the guy,' as they say. But Sean was always friendly to me.") It's perfectly, totally in keeping with how early explorations into first relationships happen in real life, and it may be helpful for kids to see it happen that way, but as literature--well, I'd love to see these things tie together in a richer way, even if the end result is the same as what Telgemeier achieved (i.e. that the character discovers how to be alone with herself, and focuses on her interests and friends before she moves on to boys in the future). For instance, suppose little Raina actually made it onto the girl's basketball team, wasn't good at it, struggled through workouts and practices, and discovered it all took valuable time away from her art? That might have made for a more poignant lesson in "I should love me, first." (I admit it's not the most imaginative plot, I'm just reaching for an example. In fact, there's a brief nod to, "Should I dress differently for Sean, or will that compromise who I am?" I only worry that it's said in passing, and may be didactic because it's told and not shown.) Also, should something more emotionally substantial come from rejecting the one boy (Sammy) who has reached out to her, in this world where she is being ruthlessly underappreciated by her other friends? Telgemeier seems to stick to the events of her real life here, and in real life things fizzle and we fail to find the double meanings of events. 


While the dental treatments feel like they're listed in exhaustive detail, some of the technical aspects are actually omitted. This may be a good thing, since her audience cares more about the social trauma of her experience! But I did notice, for instance, that in order for her lateral incisors to become her front teeth, her canines had to become her lateral incisors. Canines are yellower than the rest of the teeth, and have a roundness (and of course sharpness) that the front four teeth don't have. They'll never quite resemble laterals, which are flat and rectangular. The orthodontist says, "We'll bond the two 'front' ones so they look normal-size, and shape the ones next to them a bit," skimming over the cosmetic step of how you file the canines (and the tenderness those teeth will feel after the enamel has been removed). In fact, though I can't be sure, in Ms. Telgemeier's author photo, it looks as if her canines were not just filed down to shape, but also had some bonding material applied.


All in all, a cute book, an easy read, and perhaps a comfort to kids feeling awkward, alone, and in some way "freakish" compared with their peers. But the storytelling suffered from the fact that it was a serialized web comic before it was a book, and the fact that it seems to literally be what happened to Ms. Telgemeier, without the depth that a touch of fictionalization would have added.