Bracing Up with Raina Telgemeier

The bestselling graphic novelist tackles adolescent orthodontic agony.

Adorning the cover of Raina Telgemeier‘s graphic novel Smile is a classic yellow smiley face. It’s wearing braces.

Published by Scholastic and meant for young readers, Smile is autobiographical: An eleven-year-old girl named Raina trips and falls while crossing a San Francisco street. Her mouth gushes blood; she has knocked out her two front teeth.

Illustrated in full color with leap-off-the-pages fluidity, Smile follows Raina through excruciating encounters with orthodontists, endodontists, headgear, and more of what Telgemeier calls “dental drama” during an era when being young was all about Super Mario Brothers and acid-washed jeans. It’s the end of the 1980s; the Loma Prieta quake shakes up a few frames, but the bits about youthful crushes, paralytic insecurity, and backstabbing fair-weather friends are timeless.

“Having braces puts certain things into perspective,” said the author/illustrator, who grew up in San Francisco, now lives in New York City, and will be at Mrs. Dalloway’s (2904 College Ave., Berkeley) on Friday, October 22. “You learn to deal with discomfort, and you learn that it won’t last forever. I also learned that looks aren’t everything, which has served me well.” After Telgemeier adapted and illustrated four Baby-sitters Club graphic novels, she was asked to create an X-Men series for teenage male readers. She coauthored the bestselling X-Men: Misfits with her husband, Ignatz Award-winning fellow comic artist Dave Roman.

The couple’s courtship is itself a comic-strip saga. Roman proposed to Telgemeier five years ago on a cross-country flight by giving her his illustrated rendition of their relationship, complete with first kiss, moving in together, and the revelation that “I love her so much. … It’s an honor just to get to be next to her, let alone be considered hers.” The plane was en route to San Francisco; the pair was heading for Telgemeier’s tenth high-school reunion. She said yes.

The story behind Smile, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards winner, “is all true. I was in sixth grade when I fell and knocked out my teeth, and I have been dealing with the consequences ever since. I had braces, a lot of surgery, and a lot of awkward smiles as a result,” said Telgemeier. Writing and drawing the story felt almost predestined, “since I spent so much time telling people about it.”

As for the flesh-and-blood counterparts of those cartoon pals who tormented cartoon Raina, “let’s just say I’m not friends with those people anymore.”

If she could reach back into time and talk to the childhood self rendered so tenderly in the pages of Smile, “I’d tell her that even though she feels isolated, there are lots of kids in the world going through something similar, and she is not alone,” Telgemeier said. “I wish I could share with her the letters I’ve received from kids, which are full of empathy and shared experience. I think they would have comforted her.” 7:30 p.m., free.

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