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The Creative Issue – News for Creatives | August 7, 2020

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Smiling through crooked teeth - Raina Telgemier (New York)

Matthew Spasaro


Most Dentists/ “Dontists” make Clint Eastwood look like Joan Rivers. There is something terrifying about the right-of-passage teenagers undertake when trying to re-align various degrees of dental deformity.

For American cartoonist Raina Telgemeier, that feeling was no different. Inspired by personal events Smile is the coming-of-age story about a girl going through the bulk of her adolescence imprisoned behind braces and headgear.

“My whole goal is capture a memory or mood on paper,” the San Francisco native explains.

Smile Braces

“This was a story about my life, it was a real personal experience that I simply told to get out of my system. The incredible thing was once it was published kids started to read it and kids started to relate to it.”

Read it they did. Going on to become a New York Times Best Seller as well as being voted No1. Book in thirteen American States, Smile explores social divisions, self-identity as well as scrunchies, crimped hair and other fashion faux pas that defined the 90’s.


In Brisbane for the Reading Matters Program, Telgemeier lists her creative pillars as Roald Dahl as well as her favourite book: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien. However, it wasn’t until discovering comics at the age of nine that the fuse was well and truly lit.

“The first one that reached out and grabbed me by the neck was Calvin and Hobbes. The artwork, I just feel like the characters are alive, they breathe and they lift me.”


“My other favourite comic strip is For Better or For Worse by Lynn Johnston. It’s very unique because the characters all age in real time, so every year as they got older it was like I was growing up with these people. I did not consider them characters, they were real to me.”

While most youngsters are locked in first-person shooter games, school day afternoons consisted of a voyage into the abyss of creativity as Telgemeier began designing a world of her own.

“It was in middle school (grade five) that I started making comics in earnest. What I did was, everyday after school instead of writing in a diary about my day I would draw a comic. Essentially I’ve been keeping journal comics about my life since I was 11.”

It was this dedication and work ethic that catapulted her to the mainstream. With Smile taking five years to complete from start to finish, the evolution of completing a comic novel from idea embodiment to bookshelf bound attainment is a long and exhaustive process.


“A lot of people now days assume that comics are made on a computer and that there is a button that says ‘draw,’ but I do everything by hand, my methods are extremely traditional,” she says. “That is not to say that people cannot make comics with just a computer, a lot of people do it and they do it very well. For me, it just makes the whole experience more organic and I love the way hand-drawn comics look.”

Currently in the process of completing her third book entitled Sisters, a memoir about the joys of family road-trips and sibling rivalry, Telgemeier now finds herself in the healthy predicament of juggling time between author talks and book signings to meet deadlines.

“My works small enough that I can work on an airplane tray table if need be, but I didn’t do any drawing on the flight here because I was watching… umm… The Devil Wears Prada” (said sheepishly with a grin).