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Originally published Saturday, October 13, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Raina Telgemeier goes for 'Drama' after dental pain of 'Smile'

Kids' Books: Author uses her comics-style art to share more of life's ups and downs in her new book "Drama."

Scripps Howard News Service

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Over the years, author/artist Raina Telgemeier had detailed her teenage "dental drama" to many friends, finding that people were fascinated by the sometimes-gory saga.

So when an editor at Scholastic Books asked Telgemeier a few years ago if she had any ideas for a graphic novel, she thought about her years-long dental struggle, which began in sixth grade when she fell and did major damage to two front teeth.

The editor was interested in the idea, so Telgemeier set to work. The result was "Smile" (Scholastic, $10.99, ages 9-14), a comics-style memoir highlighting Telgemeier's "dental drama" but also telling of the emotional ups and downs of her middle-school and early-high-school years growing up in the San Francisco area.

Published in 2010, "Smile" featured a colorful, iconographic cover, expressive art and a can't-put-it-down true story. "Smile" was an immediate hit with young readers — both boys and girls; and the book also won raves from critics and grabbed a spot on the best-seller list.

It was a thrilling turn of events for Telgemeier, who previously had steady — but modest — success with her comics-style versions of author Ann Martin's "The Baby-Sitters Club" series. Once "Smile" was published, young readers clamored for Telgemeier to continue the story of her teenage years in a sequel, but she decided that she wasn't ready to do that — at least not yet.

Instead, Telgemeier, 35, decided to write her first fictional long-form comic. Just published, "Drama" (Scholastic, $23.99 hardcover, $10.99 paperback, ages 9-14) does draw on emotions and memories from Telgemeier's middle-school years, yet this time she created the story and the characters.

" 'Drama' is a spiritual sequel to 'Smile,' " Telgemeier said in a recent interview. "But in fiction, you're freer to take the story where you want it to go. You're also freer to make mistakes!"

(Note: Both "Smile," a nonfiction memoir, and "Drama," a fictional book, can be referred to as "graphic novels" because they tell a story in words and comics-style art. Obviously, the term "graphic novel" is a bit confusing, as it refers both to books that are fictional and books that are nonfictional. The terms "comics-style book" and "long-form comic" are more accurate, if less used, terms).

"Drama" focuses on a middle-school student named Callie, who loves theater and especially her backstage role as the set designer on the school's theater crew. Callie has plenty of ideas for the school's annual show, yet she also must deal with a tight budget and the fact that she's still learning set design.

Added to those challenges are Callie's various ups and downs with her friends, plus the fact that she seems to keep picking the wrong boys as her crushes. Fortunately, Callie makes a couple of new friends — identical twin boys — who help to keep her sane and add some much-needed talent to the show.

As in "Smile," Telgemeier presents a pitch-perfect portrait — in words and illustrations — of the emotional roller coaster of young teen life. Callie is a totally believable character, a good kid who makes mistakes yet retains an all-important core of self-confidence. While Telgemeier certainly doesn't set out to send her readers a message, anyone reading "Drama" (and "Smile") will understand her point: Whatever other people say or do, be proud of who you are.

At the end of "Smile," for example, Telgemeier writes about herself: "The more I focused on my interests, the more it brought out things I liked about myself. And that affected the way other people saw me!"

"I was always a kid who was just very in touch with my own emotions," Telgemeier recalled in the interview.

Telgemeier grew up in the San Francisco area, the oldest of three siblings. As she details in "Smile," her middle-school and high-school years were made even more challenging because of her dental ordeal, which involved significant pain, outpatient surgery and numerous visits to dental specialists.

Art was an important outlet for Telgemeier, who had wanted to grow up and become an artist since she could remember. She also developed an early love for comics, such as "Calvin and Hobbes" and "For Better or Worse," a passion shared by her father.

Her parents encouraged Telgemeier to pursue her art. Telgemeier took community-college art classes as she worked in various minimum-wage jobs.

Finally, when she was 22, Telgemeier headed off to the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York. She majored in illustration and cartooning, graduating in 2002. She also met her future husband, comics author/artist Dave Roman, at the SVA. The two detailed their engagement in a webcomic, which can be accessed at: http://www.webcomicsnation.com/daveroman/engaged/series.php?view=archive&chapter=2085.

While at the SVA, Telgemeier had a student job working for a publisher, which gave her valuable experience and some contacts. She eventually connected with Scholastic, where editors loved her idea of creating comics-style versions of the best-selling "Baby-Sitters Club" series.

Telgemeier produced four of those books, and then editors asked her to try something different, which is when "Smile" was born. Now that Telgemeier has published "Drama," her first try at writing and illustrating her own fiction, she says she's ready to tell another story from her own life.

"It will take place within the same time frame as 'Smile,' taking place between my freshman and sophomore years in high school," said Telgemeier, who says the book likely will be published in 2014.

With the success of "Smile" and now "Drama," Telgemeier has become an unofficial spokesman for long-form comics for kids and teens.

"I am happy to be that person," she said.

Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.

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