Teeth pain: a great analogy for teen years

Smile, written and Illustrated by Raina Telgemeier is an autobiographical comic book about the author’s years of suffering through orthodontist reconstruction after knocking out her front teeth at age 12. 

This isn’t the type of book I would not have picked out – aimed at a more middle grade level and dealing mainly with teen issues, I wouldn’t have tried reading it if the hype hadn’t been continuing even years later. But that’s just it, even though the graphic novel is 11 years old now, people are still referencing it and recommending it. Admittedly, I really enjoy autobiographical comics, I have read quite a few, have collected them for a while and I am curious as to what this comic has achieved.

The drawings are cute and clear. We are horrified to see the main character open her mouth on 2 missing front teeth, and we feel her pain when she grimaces as the doctor tightens her braces or as her friends tease her. I’ve been lucky enough never to wear any braces so I never knew how painful the whole process was until my husband once talked about it. But I’m sure many people will know and identify with the experience. And this is sure to resonate deeply with teens and pre-teens going through that kind of treatment. I’m not even thinking just about teeth, but I’m sure any kind of hip/foot/back bracing must be quite difficult to live through and accept from the day to day. This is quite a powerfully freeing comic for many – hopefully reminding young ones that this is just temporary, whatever their problem is… and that they can take steps to change their lives.

I really liked that there were a variety of empowering messages in this comic and I can see how it would resonate strongly not only with the youth. 

There were a few nostalgic things that spoke to me. I’m a little younger, but I was very much impacted by the little mermaid coming out and discovering it at 5, I think that must be the cartoon I saw the most in all my life, I just loved it so much.

On the other hand I have a very different personality from the writer and a lot of her interests didn’t resonate with me at all, but I was in the minority even as a teen and I suspect many today still care very much about “looking cool”, “looking older”, “boys” even as pre-teens, being attractive and doing things just to attract the crush’s attention. It’s very genuine and I love that about it. But I won’t lie, it doesn’t talk to me and reminded me of this superficial world the 80s and 90s tried to convince girls they had to be into. I hope things are different now. But somehow I doubt it… Teen years seem to be more than ever about appearance and building your “exterior image”.

And in a way teeth are a good analogy. It is something we of course need to fix, but most of what is done on teeth is cosmetic, it is part of this exterior image that teens have to cultivate and feel so sore and touchy about. It is something that has to look the same as all other people and makes you be accepted or not, that makes you belong or not and can quickly mark you as an outcast. 

A great book for middle-graders to feel understood and to gain empathy.

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