Hey, Kids Comics! – Smile & Sisters By Raina Telgemeier

You may have noticed that I’m posting a lot more here on PopPoppa lately. It took a while to get caught up with Photo Diaries and now that that particular monkey’s off my back, I’m looking to get back to the whole idea behind this site: sharing my experiences in hopes that someone else will find them useful (or, at the very least, entertaining!).

One of the areas that I want to continue exploring is the world of all-ages comics. I got into the medium way back in 1992 and have been a fan ever since, so I’m always trying to figure out ways to get new people interested in sequential storytelling. Few people in the industry have done a better job of that than writer-artist-cartoonist Raina Telgemeier. She not only has a passel of Eisner Awards on his shelf (the Oscars of comics), but also sells ridiculously high numbers of original graphic novels that kids continue to eat up. You can now include yours truly on that list because I recently tore through her two autobiographical books Smile and Sisters.

Smile originally began its life as web comic that Telgemeier eventually collected and set up at Scholastic’s Graphix imprint for a 2010 release that would go on to spend over 240 weeks on the New York Times‘ best sellers list. As you can probably infer from the cover, the book uses Telgemeier’s multi-year journey through the world of dentistry and orthodontics to also tell stories about growing up in the late 80s/early 90s and becoming more and more comfortable with herself and her friend group.

In a painful twist of fate, Young Raina had just scheduled an appointment to get her braces, when she fell on her face while running to her own home. This compounded her dental issues even further because of the damage done by the impact. What follows is a frustrating, embarrassing and painful trip through adolescence ranging from sixth grade into her sophomore year of high school.

I would imagine that Smile would be the perfect book for anyone with similar dental hurdles to overcome. I got braces in 8th grade and had them into high school as well, so I could relate to certain parts, but there’s so much else that she had to deal with that was just incredible. Because of that, though, she becomes a really impressive young woman who can be a fantastic role model to any kid — or grown-up — regardless of how much time you’ve spent in an orthodontist’s chair. That bravery and boldness carries over into her real life when she finally tells her less-than-friendly friends that she doesn’t want anything to do with them anymore. At that point, she decides not to wallow in her loneliness or focus on her looks so much, but zeroes in on the things she loves which inadvertently lead her to a new group of friends who were much more loving and supportive. Those are the kinds of important journeys just about anyone can relate to.

Telgemeier’s next graphic novel was a fictional work called Drama that I’m excited to check out, but in 2014 she released the sequel-of-sorts to Smile, Sisters. Unlike its predecessor, this later book used a family trip as its roadmap. In this one, Raina’s mother takes her, her younger sister Amara and their little brother Will on a week-long excursion from California to Colorado for a family reunion. Along the way, we get a nice recap of the title dynamic going back to Raina’s early days wishing for a sister and then the reality of what came from Amara’s birth.

It’s actually pretty impressive how many relationship aspects and nuances Telgemeier gets into in this 197 page OGN. Even though Raina and Amara both love art, they approach it from different angles and allow that to come between them instead of bringing them together while simultaneously disregarding their brother. I also very much related to the strange connections or lack thereof when it comes to interacting with family members that she hasn’t seen in 10 years. There’s an expectation from parents that family should just get along and have a great time, but you’re essentially dropping your children off into a group of strangers and expecting deep connections.

In addition to all of the emotional aspects of the story, there’s also a great story too. The feels come along the way, interweaving between these flashbacks and other tent pole moments, but the entire book culminates in a wild event taking place after they’ve left the reunion. All of these threads from the rest of the book come together in a section that feels both understandable and head-scratching and nerve-wracking and even a little exciting. I don’t want to give any of it away, but it really nicely ties everything together while also giving a real-life thrill.

Overall, I really enjoyed both of these books. Telgemeier is a wonderful storyteller who kept me engaged at every point. Her writing feels real and true and poignant and her art reminds me of Bill Watterson, though it took me a while to make that connection because I mostly thought of it as her own style. These books were incredibly accessible — especially as a 35 year old who grew up around the same time and can relate to the culture touchstones includes — but, I assume, also to a larger and younger audience because her books continue to sell like wild. My seven year old daughter flipped through one of the books and seemed interested. When I asked her if she wanted to read it, though, she said no. She’s had a few of her own dental issues, so I’m thinking that I might bring Smile back into the house in a few years to see if she wants to give it another shot.

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