I got the chance to read Raina Telgemeier's Smile last night. It's basically an autobiographical graphic novel which focuses on Telgemeier's life when she was growing up and having to deal with some major dental problems. Not surprisingly, as a young girl with major orthodontistry going on in her mouth (a fair bit more than just braces), she had to deal with a lot of issues around self-confidence and social acceptance.
It should come as no surprise that high school was a difficult/awkward time for me. It should come as no surprise because, as I later learned, it was a difficult/awkward time for EVERYBODY. The people you've grown up with are maturing at different rates, and in different ways. You become more self-aware as well as more empathetic. While you've mastered the basics of how your body works (i.e. motor skills) you're suddenly thrown a curve with a new body chemistry that includes everything from acne to complex emotions you'd never conceived were possible. Everyone has trouble adjusting to their adult selves, so Smile should theoretically be accessible by pretty much everyone. The teeth problems, after all, were really just a symbol of everything else that kids experience at that age.
Let me state here and now that I liked Smile. I thought it was well-done and I quite enjoyed it. But that's the strange thing: I'm not sure WHY it resonated at all.
Like everybody else, I had my issues in high school. But my experiences were really nothing like Telgmeier's. I didn't have a problem with realizing that my close childhood friends were assholes. (Oh, there were plenty of assholes in the school, though!) I didn't have self-esteem issues that stemmed from my braces. I never tried completely changing how I looked to catch someone's attention. I never had an especially bad breakout of acne. I never had a crush on a younger student. I really didn't care to achieve some kind of broad social acceptance. We certainly never had earthquakes! Not to mention that I have a Y chromosome that Telgmeier doesn't!
My high school experience was vastly different and represents the absolute worst four years of my life. Emotionally, I really didn't recognize anything in Smile. But that's representative of me and my experiences. I know the issues I had in school were significantly different (not necessarily worse, mind you, just different) than the vast majority of people. So I shouldn't recognize anything in Telgmeier's book. It's not really intended for me.
But I still enjoyed it. The characters are all fleshed-out and believable. The story runs smoothly and easily throughout the book, and I'm sure many people will directly relate to the various touchstones Telgmeier drops in. I'm certain, in fact, that any number of younger readers could well use Smile almost literally as a guidebook in getting through their teenage years, regardless of whether or not they wear braces. So even though I couldn't put myself into the story, it still felt very sincere and very real. And I think that really highlights the achievement of the book, that Telgmeier can make the story so approachable and enjoyable despite my not really recognizing it.
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