Smile by Raina Telgemeier is a graphic novel with a difference. I say this because up to now, apart from the classic Tin Tin and Asterix books, most graphic novels I’ve come across have been far too adult for me to recommend for primary aged readers. Smile tells the story of three key years in the life of the author, Raina, from 11-13, when she suffered an accident which meant orthodontic surgery and then learning to live with braces on her teeth. It is a rather sweet story in which Raina has to learn how to cope with being a ‘brace face’ and what is most important to her, what is on the inside or outside of a person.
In our local library, where I found this, I was intrigued to find that there is now a separate, dedicated graphic novel section of the children’s library, as well as the pre-existing section in the YA/Teen section. My son, who is eight, always gravitates towards the graphic novels, but until now, has not been allowed to take them out on his child’s library card as they are deemed too adult in content. If he wants to borrow one, this means that I have to frisk it first, and then, if I decide he will cope with it, I have to take it out on my ticket for him.
It is wonderful that I can now steer him to a section that caters for him, and where he can exercise some autonomy in what he can take out on his own ticket. It’s where I found Smile. Admittedly not the sort of content that he’s interested in, but with a slew of awards and the author’s work creating graphic novels of the classic Baby Sitter’s Club books already on my radar, I was intrigued and decided to read it for myself.
This is not the sort of graphic novel that’s going to appeal to boys at all, and nor will it appeal to what to now has been labelled the ‘market’ for graphic novels, i.e. kids who are interested in fantasy and manga with a side order of steam punk. It is a simple, day to day story of what it is to be a young girl growing up and facing all the ordinary things girls face as they enter into puberty and move from primary to high school. It reminds me of a kind of Judy Blume style, I’m thinking Deenie here, but for a slightly younger audience.
The illustrations are fabulous, drenched in colour, full of life and a vivid sense of humour that works alongside the more serious messages of the book and means that it never tips over into being preachy or too wholesome. The book deliberately keeps the love interest/puberty angle light. There are failed dates for example, but nothing explicit, and the puberty side of things is more about the snippiness of friendship groups and finding people who are your own tribe rather than about periods etc.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and would love to see it in school libraries as an example of what the blossoming of the genre of graphic novels can offer to children these days. I find it exciting and rather wonderful that what we can offer to children is ever widening in terms of reading material, and it is so nice to see graphic novels for girls, and particularly graphic novels for children about every day stuff.