Everybody, just “Smile”

As the semester here at Mary Washington continues to progress, and as we delve into more and more literature, we have come to an interesting point in the course syllabus. We are now attempting to define what a “comic” is, and how the term “graphic novel” came to be. Graphic novels, as a medium, have the ability to entertain us, either through its action packed storyline, like “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns,” or to be thought provoking like Art Spiegelman’s “Maus.” Whatever the case may be, as I have stated in previous blogs, graphic novels are so much more. They can help educate students in the classroom, teach us about learning disabilities and living with them, as well as the difficulties of growing up and overcoming life’s obstacles. Essentially, if you listen closely enough to their message, they have the ability to make us better people. To wit…


Today, we live in a world that allows us to be connected to a steady media outlet. Whether the source is television, the internet, or social media, the amount of knowledge at our disposal is unprecedented. Along with this constant flow of information comes the need for commercial advertisement that sometimes specifically targets individuals by their age. Now, being a father to three daughters, one teenager and two preteens, I see these advertisements as they portray the images of young men and women who are so beautiful, and body perfect, that it defies natural law. This can be somewhat detrimental to many boys and girls who are coming of age, and trying to find a sense of self and self-worth. While it is nearly impossible to compete with the mainstream media, it is good to know that many young and impressionable children can turn to books, like the graphic novel memoir, “Smile,” by Raina Telgemeier.


Originally written as a web-based comic, in 2010, it tells the story of a young, sixth grade Raina, growing up in San Francisco. Along the way, we learn about her ordeals after she trips and falls, and severely damages her two front teeth. And, unfortunately, all of which happens during the most confusing period in everyone’s life, pre-pubescence. While having to suffer with multiple dental surgeries, braces, and a retainer with fake teeth, she also has to cope with the adolescent angst of puberty, boys, and friends, who grow and change themselves, and are not what they seem. It is a story of a young girl searching for acceptance from her friends and peers, while trying to overcome her own body image insecurities.


Having won the Eisner Award in 2011, in the Best Publication for Teens category, this book delivers a message for children who are struggling with their own body image insecurities. It lets them know that they are not alone when they feel that their appearance does not measure up to society’s standards. This is a point that the character Raina herself raises, when her mother introduces her to her new dental headgear, and says, “Lots of kids wear funny stuff to help fix their bodies…you probably don’t realize it because no one talks about it.” Her reaction of, “Well, maybe someone should start talking about it,” coupled with her thought bubble of, “…in some ways I am kinda normal…,” she realizes this truth, and that with some patients and perseverance, we all can grow in the face of adversity.


With the publication of this book, Ms. Telgemeier has spread this message everywhere, and it seems kids and young adults are paying attention. In my quest to find this book, all copies of it were signed out in the local libraries, and only one copy remained at Books-A-Million. In fact, when I borrowed it to write this blog, my own child got a little upset with me and implored me not to lose her bookmarked page.smile (1)