written by Raina Telgemeier
What could be more dramatic than staging a middle school play?
In author/illustrator’s Raina Telgemeier’s highly anticipated follow-up to Smile she explores this question through protagonist Callie’s eyes. Young Callie is a theater enthusiast, and while her lack of singing talent ensures that she remains off the stage, she’s an integral part of the production behind the scenes.
Let’s start at the beginning, though. When upperclassman Greg kisses Callie, she’s smitten at the story’s start. He soon demonstrates his true colors, however, when he rejects her at school the following day. Callie decides to throw herself wholeheartedly in helping to stage Moon Over Mississippi, a musical. Her boy-crazy nature gets a boost when two cute twin brothers named Justin and Jesse show an interest in the play and in her, albeit in different ways. The outgoing and gregarious Justin loves to sing and dance and makes quick friends with Callie over their mutual love of theater. The more shy and reserved Jesse seems a lot more interested in just hanging out with Callie and being her friend, which quickly helps Callie get over her broken heart.
Drama features expressive art. It’s not quite over-the-top, but it toes the line. Characters often make facial expressions that will remind you of anime, but aren’t quite there. Trying to describe the art in this book sort of reminded me a lot of interviews I’ve read about the Teen Titans cartoon a few years ago. People wanted to call it an anime series, but it wasn’t quite. You can definitely see the influences in Raina’s work, but the fusion within her style just make it so you see every emotion on each character’s face. This is perhaps most reflected in Justin, who seems to dance from panel to panel trapped in a song only he can hear, and in Callie who can’t stop making reacting with a dropped jaw and bugged-out eyes every time she gets surprised, which is a lot.
One day, while sitting on the bleachers, Justin tells Callie that he’s gay. While she’s initially shocked, she gets over her surprise pretty quickly and it makes the two friends that much closer. A lot of attention has been focused on this, a graphic novel for children featuring a homosexual character; Justin is quick to point out to her that he knows he likes boys, but isn’t really sure that he’s ready to act on these feelings yet. You get the sense that he’s scared. This is pretty realistic for kids at that age, about to enter high school but not quite at the next stage in their life. It is called "middle school" after all. Callie’s utter shock at Justin's revelation is also kind of a fun moment. As a reader, you get the sense that the story is clearly headed in that direction. Callie not seeing that moment about to happen gives a beat of comedy in a pretty intense emotional moment.
Drama is rife with those emotional moments. Callie as invested in whether or not Jesse likes her as much she is with making a cannon explode on stage during the production, if not more so. She doesn’t do anything half-fast. Callie is the kind of girl who goes all in. It’s easy to imagine being 12 years old and having relationships with school mates and being on crew in the big school play as being the most important things in your life. While Callie tries desperately to make things go her way, not everything does, and those moments are legitimately heartrending for readers of any age. Things end in this story as they should. As painful as all that is for Callie to go through, it doesn’t destroy her hope for the future, which is firmly in place by the story's last panel.
Recommended for readers in 7th grade and up, but I have the feeling that just as many adults—if not more—will empathize with Callie’s plight and, dare I say it, drama.