Happy Birthday, Raina Telgemeier!

Authors, Banned and Challenged Books, LGBTQIA+

By: Vicky Ludas Orlofsky

RaRaina Telgemeierina Telgemeier, who celebrates her 42nd birthday on May 26, is a bestselling, award-winning author and illustrator of graphic novels for kids and young adults. Telgemeier was born and raised in San Francisco, CA, and lives there currently. Her work is based on the idea of helping children and young adults realize the value and importance of their own stories, despite the pressures they may feel from family or peers.

A fan of the comic strips For Better or For Worse, telling the day-to-day life of a family, and Calvin and Hobbes, the interior adventures of a young boy and his toy tiger, Telgemeier’s early work was similarly based on a humorous look at her own life. She brought this relatability to her first books published by a major publisher, graphic adaptations of four books in Ann M. Martin’s Babysitters’ Club series (2006-2008). The graphic novels about or inspired by her own experiences, including Smile (2010), Drama (2012), Sisters (2014), Ghosts (2016) and the upcoming Guts (September 2019), have made her the popular author she is today. In a 2016 interview with the New Yorker, Telgemeier noted that her goal with all her work was to show her readers “[t]hat everybody, with just a little bit of talking and a little bit of empathy, can find out that they have a lot in common.”

Smile, Sisters, and Guts are about the author as an adolescent, taken from the diaries she started keeping at age 10. A friend who used to work for the publisher gave my two young daughters a copy of Sisters, and while I thought we might have to wait to read it until they were older, they were immediately engaged by the illustrations. We have now read it for bedtime a number of times, albeit with a little editing on my part (but very little!). Telgemeier first wrote about her adolescence in Smile, based on her experience in middle school following an accident that knocked out her two front teeth, and Sisters is again set in that period of her life, focusing on the relationship she had with her younger sister Amara. The story of a road trip from California to Colorado Telgemeier took with her mother and younger siblings when she was thirteen, Sisters fascinated my girls. They were particularly drawn to the sisters given the author’s skill in drawing emotion they could recognize without my needing to explain it, and the sibling dynamic that they themselves experience. I loved the unique texture and feel of the book’s setting and spaces, including some gorgeous Southwestern landscapes. Sisters is written for the 8-12 age range but I can tell you that it’s great for the younger set, too.

Graphic Novels by Raina Telgemeier, Smile, Drama, and SistersNot all of her novels are strictly autobiographical. Published between Smile and Sisters, Drama departed from the memoir mode in that it was fully fictional but was inspired by her experiences in a high school drama club. Drama is also unlike her other novels in that it is aimed at the 10-14 age group. Its portrayal of middle schoolers figuring themselves out, including a few LGBTQ characters, made a number of notable, best-of and LGBTQ association honors lists. But it has also appeared on the lists of challenged or banned books often since it was first published, highlighted by the Banned Books Week blog in September 2018 and most recently appearing as #5 on ALA’s Top Eleven Most Challenged Books of 2018.

In a 2017 interview with School Library Journal, Telgemeier mentioned how exciting it had been to her and her friends to see a 1990s For Better or For Worse storyline that featured a gay character. The response was what Lynn Johnston, the creator of the comic strip, called a “spontaneous, emotional outpouring of opinion,” including hate mail and newspapers canceling her strip. But by Johnston’s count, 70% of the personal letters she received were positive, and Telgemeier sees Drama as her version of that experience, with the negative Amazon reviews, hate mail and book challenges drowned out by all of the emails and comments she has received from children and young adults who feel seen.

Telgemeier’s commitment to her characters is part of the appeal of her books. She believes in and validates them, and by doing so she lets young adults and children (even very young ones!) recognize themselves on the page. Her policy, as she put it in a 2016 column in Cosmopolitan, is that “[y]ou don’t need to be extraordinary in order to be recognized for your feelings and feel loved,” and a message like that is of perpetual relevance.


Vicky Ludas OrlofskyVicky Ludas Orlofsky has been the Instruction & Scholarly Communication Librarian at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ, for more than five years. She has long had a personal and professional interest in issues of copyright, user privacy and intellectual freedom, which has informed her approach to instruction and reference. She lives in New Jersey with her family, and in her spare time, such as it is, enjoys bakeries, reading, and bullet journaling.

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