Friday, September 27, 2013

In Defense of Drama (Banned Books Week)

Is it weird to say Happy Banned Books Week? In a perfect world, we wouldn’t be celebrating voices who have been silenced because all voices would be heard. But at the same time, I can’t help but feel giddy to join organizations like the American Library Association’s Office For Intellectual Freedom, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the Freedom to Read Foundation, the National Council of Teachers of English and many other allies to celebrate intellectual freedom, the freedom to read, and free speech. Basically, I heart freedom.

Together we celebrate books that have been banned or challenged, support authors whose visits have been rescinded, and tell stories that deserve to be told. When a voice flickers in the darkness, we add to the light. United we create a resounding call to arms to ensure that books have their rightful place in our collections. But what happens when books are swept under the carpet without our knowledge? When they simply aren’t purchased for a collection or removed from a book sale? Or authors are told sweetly, “I’d love to buy your book, but I am afraid of the parents.” In our climate of anonymous online communication, people spread venom by hyper-fixating on a plot point or moment in the story without understanding it in context. Books are (horrors!) thrown away or discarded rather than do the brave thing and go through the understandably demanding challenge process. According to the Office for Intellectual Freedom, “for each challenge reported there are as many as four or five that go unreported.”

When I called the Office of Intellectual Freedom this week, I expected them to verifiy my assumption that no one had challenged Drama by Raina Telgemeier and I surprised to learn that it has been challenged. For the many unreported moments when this book was misunderstood or maligned, I would like to do my part to shed the light – and not stir the flames. When dealing with challenges, it is important to remember that each person has the right to read – or not read - as he sees fit, but no one should revoke another person’s choice to do the same. It is my goal in honor of Banned Books Week to bring awareness of the importance of providing access to this incredible book. (Please note that this article does contain spoilers.) 

What is Drama? 

Drama is a graphic novel written by Raina Telgemeier, published in September 2012 by Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic, aimed at grades 5-9.

The stage is set for awkward relationships and dramatic flourishes as Callie and her friends work on their middle school’s production of Moon over Mississippi. As the set designer, Callie is responsible for creating the world of the play and she dreams big. Callie’s enthusiasm pays off when she draws a pair of adorable twins, Jessie and Justin, into her world of theater and quickly becomes friends with them. While the stage crew and actors scramble to get ready for the show, Callie grapples with crushes that may or may not be reciprocated. Emotions will run wild and anything can happen before the curtain falls.

Think of it as Smile meets Glee meets High School Musical, sorta. 

      You can watch the highly entertaining book trailer. 


It’s no secret that I love Drama. My copy is replete with sticky notes on almost every page. I read my copy for the first time on the plane returning from ALA Annual in Anaheim and have been obsessed with it ever since. And it only gets better with each reading. I have listed the things that I love about Drama below, but it’s important to consider that each person gets something different from a story at different times in his or her life. Some readers may enjoy Callie’s determination or the whirlwind crushes she experiences. Others may connect to the twins or to her best friend, Liz. Reading experiences vary, which makes it even more important for people to have access to a variety of stories.

Why I Love Drama:  

· Middle school can be brutal, but Telgemeier focuses on the ways it can be good, namely finding a passion that makes it bearable. I wish I had a stage crew to join in middle school!

· The behind-the-scenes production of a school musical, from the creepy costume vault to the disastrous tech rehearsal to the lives of the stage crew. All the details from inspiration to creation to perspiration make the story come to life.

· The way Telgemeier can say everything in a well-designed image. My heart broke for Callie as she stood alone by the empty baseball field, hurt and humiliated after Greg has Matt lie to her about being at baseball practice (p. 17).

· Raina Telgemeier’s art shows her mastery of composition, from the expressions on the characters’ faces to the variety of sizes of the panels to the sound effects.

· The scene when Callie and Jesse jump into her favorite theater book ‘Mary Poppins style’ and explore the sets (p. 51-53). Who hasn’t wanted to do that? (I dream of jumping into the Colleen Moore Fairy Castle myself all the time.)

· Justin and Jesse introduce Callie (and the reader) to Bubble Tea.

· Callie is a dauntless and creative heroine, who dreams big. She is determined to have a working canon onstage and stops at nothing to make it succeed.

· When Callie first discovers her love of theater while watching a production of Les Miserables (p. 89-92) and finds her community in the stage crew.

· Bookstore love.

· The spot-on portrayal of the emotional turmoil that is middle school with its crushes, misplaced affection, and rejection. Drama, indeed.

· Callie’s response to Justin’s confession that he’s gay with unconditional acceptance and a hug.

· After Jesse saves the show by taking on the role of Maybelle, he receives a standing ovation and thunderous applause, finally showing his true colors as a performer.

· Callie’s response to Greg’s demand to “Don’t be confused. Be my girlfriend” (p. 216-218). We need more girls like Callie in middle grade literature!

Reviews, Accolades, and Awards

I am not the only one who loves Drama. The critics have spoken! And gathering support for a book in the form of book reviews, awards, and lists is an important part of justifying its place in your collection. I have collected quotes from a selection of reviews below, with links to the original reviews.

The author follows up her award-winning graphic novel Smile with another dead-on look at the confusing world of middle school, sweetly capturing all the drama swirling around the school production: from jealousies and misunderstandings to the last-minute surprise stage substitution that may not make a star, but helps settle who likes who. Telgemeier’s manga-infused art has some moments of heartache, but the generally cheerful and affirming story should be eagerly devoured by her many fans.
                                                                              - Publisher’s Weekly

From award winner Telgemeier (Smile, 2010), a pitch-perfect graphic novel portrayal of a middle school musical, adroitly capturing the drama both on and offstage. . .With the clear, stylish art, the strongly appealing characters and just the right pinch of drama, this book will undoubtedly make readers stand up and cheer. Brava!

Telgemeier’s new graphic novel offers up a standing ovation-worthy depiction of the theatrics of adolescence, both on and offstage. Drama geeks will zero in on Callie’s insider references to stage terms and musicals, while even the most performance-averse kid will relate to her struggles to identity the true motivations of those around her and negotiate relationships with kids just trying to figure themselves and other humans out.
                     -Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (Kate Quealy-Gainer)

Her deceptively simple art may seem cartoonish, but it is grounded in a firm sense of style and washed in warm colors to give the story an open, welcoming feel. In this realistic and sympathetic story, feelings and thoughts leap off the page, revealing Telgemeier’s keen eye for young teen life.
                                                                          -Booklist (Snow Wildsmith)

The Horatio Alger of graphic novelists, Telgemeier draws up-by-their-book-bags characters who value hard work and seize a chance that has nothing to do with looks or even with love. While capable of boy craziness, they concentrate on friendship and creative fulfillment. The better Telgemeier’s books sell, the less hand-wringing to do over the next generation. If this is what the youth of America are into, the kids are all right.
                                                                   -New York Times (Ada Calhoun)

Drama is engaging from the first pages, and readers are grabbed from the beginning by Callie's sense of humor and a sense of immediacy that reads exactly how a seventh grader takes EVERYTHING in their world.... As for Callie, she is what I wish I had been like in school- she is such a strong female character with a huge sense of self that she could be someone to look up to for middle school girls. She knows what she wants to be when she grows up, she sticks to her guns when she knows she's right, she accomplishes everything she sets out to accomplish, and she doesn't let her relationships (up or down) diminish her confidence in her identity.
                                                                 -Teen Librarian Tool Box

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.
                                                          -Graphic Novel Reporter (Ryan Donovan)

The characters in Drama wrestle with some serious topics, including self-respect, jealousy, popularity, morality, and even sexuality in a way that the shyest and most reserved reader will be able to absorb without feeling awkward or judged. In the words of my 12-year-old, the story “talks about those big, important things that can feel weird to talk about – even with a parent or a friend. And you don’t feel embarrassed, even though you can imagine being Callie and all that stuff happening to you.”

Drama is an exceptional graphic novel that delivers several positive, yet subtle, messages for young readers. It examines what it means to be “cool,” the importance of caring about school, family and friends, and emphasizes that self-respect is much more important than any boy. Through the fun context of theater productions and stage sets, the book also makes it clear that while stage crew is awesome, off-stage drama is way overrated. But Drama, as a book, is definitely not.
                                                         -Nerdy Book Club (Tamara McKinney)

If you read reviews on Raina Telgemeier’s previous graphic novel, Smile, you’ll see words like “charming” and “sweet.” Her second attempt at capturing the middle school years is no less successful, and Telgemeier sticks with what she’s good at, capturing the middle school years. Let me tell you, Telgemeier hits the drama and to-do of those tumultuous years right on the head of the nail.
                     -School Library Journal’s Good Comics for Kids (Esther Keller)

Drama is quite possibly the most honest piece of realistic fiction I have ever read. I'm insanely proud of Raina for writing this book but also for Scholastic and Graphix for supporting her and this story. Sometimes people are hesitant to be completely honest and transparent about experiences kids are having everyday all over the world - by telling this story, Raina is telling her readers that she acknowledges the fact that not every person feels the same way about his or her sexuality and that understanding and accepting how they do feel might take time and might not be easy but it doesn't mean it's not real. My favorite part is that while Raina tackles this topic, this isn't what the story is all about at all. It's there, it's real, but there is so much more that goes on in Callie's life.
                                                 -Teach Mentor Texts (Jen)

Awards and Honors

Stonewall Honor Book (2013)

Harvey Award for Best Original Graphic Publication for Younger Readers Nominee (2013)

Rainbow List (2013)

YALSA's Great Graphic Novels for Teens (2013) 

It Gets Better DURING Middle School 

Many reviewers and critics have praised the very thing that challengers focus on as the “problem” with Drama: its portrayal of homosexuality. They say that it is a “hot button issue” that is “inappropriate” for middle school. They focus on the scene when Justin fearlessly tells Callie that he is gay and the scene when Jesse (as Miss Maybelle) and West (as Mr. Johnson) kiss in the school play. Traditionally, the canon of children’s literature mostly offered two possible outcomes for its gay characters: death or conversion (i.e. suppression). In the past decades, writers like Nancy Garden, David Levithan, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, James Klise, Francesca Lia Block, Julie Anne Peters, Malinda Lo, the list fortunately goes on and on, have crafted nuanced stories of LGBTQ youth that portray real, messy, sometimes delightful, sometimes scary lives. Some of them even get happy endings. But these are Young Adult books, which leaves a huge gap to fill for middle grade readers. What Telgemeier has done is expand the paradigm of coming out stories – and made it just part of the fabric of middle school experiences. Just like it is for actual middle school kids. According to Benoit Denizet-Lewis’ 2009 article, Coming out in Middle School, “sex researchers and counselors say that middle-school students are increasingly coming out to friends or family or to an adult in school.” More recently, a study by the Human Rights Campaign of 10,000 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teenagers found that “54 percent of those in middle school say they are [out]” (Schwartz, 2012). Middle schools are forming Gay-Straight Alliances and instituting anti-bullying policies to make schools safer for their LGBTQ students. The invisibility of the past is slowly fading away. In Drama, Callie responds to Justin’s confession that he is gay with, “I guess I was never really sure if anyone I knew was” and then pulls him into a warm hug and tells him, “Your secret’s safe with me.” (p. 65-67). It is her natural reaction to accept her friend for who he is. She offers him unconditional love and support. Justin is hesitant to share this information but he isn’t bullied or mistreated by his peers. Being gay is just part of the multifaceted person that he is, along with his proclivity to burst into song in front of malls. Reading the entire book is essential to understanding who Justin is and appreciating him in the context of the story. In the same way, Jesse’s decision to take on the role of Maybelle to save the show last minute comes at the heels of a long process of self-discovery and well, drama. (Let’s not forget the longstanding tradition of men playing female roles in theater. Again, context is important.) This is a moment where gender roles and heteronormativity are challenged, but best of all, Jesse reveals how talented he really is - to himself. When the audience gives him a standing ovation (and we know everyone should have a standing ovation at least once in their lives), the reader cheers, too. It is important for teens to have access to genuine texts where they can see themselves in the work. As Scott Robins said, “One of the most important things we can do to combat depression, bullying and suicide is make available materials where kids can see themselves” (YALSA Hub Challenge: Drama by Raina Telgemeier, 2013). Drama reflects the lives of its adolescent readers and shows it is possible to be out – and happy.

Without judgments or bias, Drama can also help open up important conversations. Using a book is oftentimes an easier way to bridge the divide between a parent and child by talking about the characters and their experiences. (And it’s always a good practice to read books along with children.) As Meg Rosoff asserted in her recent Guardian article, “...that's where literature can help – by exploring the scary stuff with insight and, on a good day, wisdom . . . If you don't talk to kids about the difficult stuff, they worry alone (Rosoff, 2013). For teens who are grappling with their sexuality, knowing that their parents will support and love them must be an incredible relief and gift. Unconditional love transcends choices and identities– and has nothing to do with ideology or religion. I wish I reacted the same way Callie did when one of my best friends came out to me; I needed a book like Drama in that moment. But knowing an actual human being who faces discrimination because of her identity inspires me to be a better advocate and ally. And that’s why Drama isn’t just for LGBTQ youth; it is a book for everyone. Reading help us develop empathy when we project ourselves into other people’s lives and walk a mile in their shoes. We return from the experience with a better understanding of others and ourselves. Throughout all of the drama, we experience the characters’ heartbreak, hope, disappointment, betrayal, fear, and triumph. We also experience what it is like to have a steadfast friend like Callie, who stands up for her friends (p. 194-195) As R.J. Palacio wrote in Wonder, “If every person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary - the world really would be a better place” (p. 301). Being compassionate doesn’t mean sharing the same beliefs; it is a purely altruistic act. It is an act of kindness to find the right book for the right reader at the right time, even if it’s not the one for you.

The Right to Read

The right to read also means the right not to read. Parents play a pivotal role in providing reading material for their children and guidance for determining if these books are appropriate for them. They can also empower their children to make their own decisions. Readers are ready for different texts at different times, and like adults, they can own their reading choices. One of my young patrons told me that she’s not ready to read Drama yet – and I applaud her for asserting her personal preferences. I know one day she’ll love it – and hopefully I’ll be there to geek out with her. The mistake that happens is that people confuse graphic novels for being easy. They’re not. Storytelling with images means there are fewer barriers to accessing the story, but the reading comprehension level and content are clearly beyond what Accelerate Reader or Lexile may indicate. Even Lexile indicates (see below) that “reading comprehension is not captured in the Lexile measure of a graphic novel.” 

The sophisticated storyline and plot, depth of the characters, middle school experiences, not to mention the demands on the reader to read the pictures makes this a book better suited for older children. People familiar with Telgemeier’s previous work in The Babysitter’s Club and Smile assume that 2nd or 3rd graders will enjoy it, but it is clearly marketed and appropriate for middle and high school readers. This doesn’t mean that an advanced 3rd grader won’t enjoy it or a middle school student will, but leveling is often arbitrary in the face of real children. Generalizing for all children means that we fail to meet the needs of the actual children we serve. Our children deserve more. They deserve to have the choice to read Drama

Drama Resources:  

DRAMA Reading Group Guide (I created this for LIS590CRL: Comics: Advising Child and Adult Readers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, taught by Dr. Carol Tilley. PLEASE NOTE: This is a guide for those who have already read DRAMA, as it contains spoilers!) Includes biographies, discussion questions, readalikes, and more.

YALSA Hub Challenge: Drama by Raina Telgemeier: An essential source in this discussion. A conversation between the Good Comics for Kids bloggers.

Writing, Reading, Inspiration, and Drama: An Interview with Raina Telgemeier By Dave Roman

Banning and Challenges Resources

Banned Book Week website

The Office for Intellectual Freedom's Challenges to Library Materials

The Center for Children's Books Dealing with Book Challenges

The National Council of Teachers of English's The Students' Right to Read Guideline

Cooperative Children's Book Center's Suggested Steps to Take When Materials Are Challenged


  1. I found this while doing my own research on Banned Books Week for my blog. this is awesome. Keep it up, please.

  2. Thank you so much for your kind words! I really appreciate all that you do to promote the freedom to read!