Thursday, June 30, 2011

Rotton Kids: Smile

After a long wait, the next Cybils Graphic Novel (Middle Grade) finalist arrived. Confusingly, Smile by Raina Telgemeier, is a biography, which as a genre usually pretends to have some difference from a novel, but I didn't notice this until I read the liner notes at the end. It's also right on the cusp of the age group; my elementary kids have no interest in the story, especially the boy. My library thinks it is a YA book.

The art really worked for me; it kept the story moving and the pages turning. The characters were all distinct and immediately believable, which the writing supported. The story follows Raina's junior high and early high school years, the years bracketed by an accident where she fell and lost her front teeth, instantly heightening her preoccupation with her looks, already a sore point for any middle school girl. Raina matures in spurts and spots, often humiliatingly out of sync with her ruthless friends. At one point I noticed that almost all these kids (and definitely all Raina's close friends) were deeply unpleasant, although Raina wasn't much better. We never see her do or feel anything for anyone else; the story is all about her feelings and experiences, which makes sense in a biography but I noticed it when I started feeling all judgemental about her so-called friends.

Luckily the last episodes redeem things a bit; Raina finally realizes she can leave her old cronies for people who respect her, and she starts focuses on what she likes to do rather than what she looks like or what her current boy crush is looking at. It's a heartening sign that caterpillars can turn into butterflies. As the story and Raina's dental work ends, she is looking forward to an active and fun high school career.

My sixth seventh grader read this and gave it a thumbs up, although he thought it was a bit unrealistic. I asked what part, and he said the part where Raina thought those mean kids were her friends for so long. I was quietly delighted to hear my middle-schooler so clearly articulate such a common misconception among kids -- people who are always mean to you are not your friends, even if they have been in your girl scout troop for years. You don't have to hang out with people who aren't your friends. I only hope this understanding rubs off on the fourth fifth grade girl too.

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