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Schadenfreude Or Empathy? Seventh Graders and “Smile” by Raina Telgemeier

Last fall, I had one of those booktalking successes every librarian hopes for.  I was working my way through the 2011 Great Graphic Novels for Teens list (as I do every year), looking for suitable titles to bring to the local middle school.   I love booktalking at this particular school because of its incredibly diverse student body; it is one of the most diverse in the nation with students from over 30 countries speaking about 60 different languages and dialects.  It is fun, but it’s definitely a challenge, especially when many of the students are recent immigrants and refugees who have been in the country for just a few months.  The school also has a high number of struggling and reluctant readers, so I always make sure to bring at least one graphic novel when I visit classes.

I knew I had hit the jackpot when I started reading Smile by Raina Telgemeier.   If you aren’t familiar with the book (go read it now), it is an autobiographical story about Raina’s middle and high school years, centered around a very traumatic accident that cost Raina her two front teeth (I won’t tell you any more about it, because you are going to go read it… now).  It also happens to be incredibly compelling.   Raina tells her story in such a way that readers can’t help but sympathize even as they breathe a huge sigh of relief that this didn’t happen to them.  With pitch perfect artwork, story and pacing, I knew this would be a popular title, and I wasn’t wrong.  Requests for the book started pouring in at my branch and the school’s library after booktalking it.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer number of boys who requested this title.   Boys and girls asked for it in equal numbers, including plenty of boys who I know would rather poke out their eyes than read a book.  What was it about this book that appealed so widely to so many teens?  Was it the fact that it was a true story?  Was it a haptic response to Raina’s accident, conveyed in delightfully gory details?  Was it the thought of how hideous it would be to wake up tomorrow morning and have to go to school with no front teeth?   I can’t say for certain, but when I was still getting requests for it six months later (from boys!), I knew I had chosen wisely.

Using graphic novels to hook reluctant readers, especially boys,  isn’t a new concept, but if you are interested in learning more about the subject be sure to read this recent article in JRLYA, which explores it in depth.

– Summer Hayes, currently reading Thor: The Mighty Avenger by Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee

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