Intellectual Freedom: Spotlight on Drama, by Raina Telegemeier

*Intellectual Freedom Assignment for SLIS 518*

Lights, Camera, Action!


Drama is the book middle school teens have been waiting for!

Callie loves drama, and drama loves Callie! It is her sophomore year in middle school, and though Callie can’t sing, she won’t let that stop her from having an integral role in this year’s school musical, Moon Over Mississippi. Jumping at the chance to be the production’s set designer, Callie has ambitious goals to make the play as authentic as possible. But in her quest to be the best-ever middle school set designer, Callie realizes that she cannot plan for every eventuality in theatre, and she cannot plan for every eventuality in life.

With her ragtag team of theatre friends, Callie learns about the importance of believing in her ideas, the drive it takes to bring those ideas to life,
and the courage to put herself out there, even if she fails. Middle school is a time for exploring self-identity, and Callie, through her tenacity, kindness, determination, empathy, and joy for life, teaches us all that a little bit of drama goes a long way for a fulfilling  life!

Overture: About the Author

downloadDrama was written and illustrated by Raina Telegemeier, the bestselling author of Smile and Sisters. After the success of her first two autobiographical books, Telegemeier created the fictional, Drama, which is loosely based on some of her own experiences in a drama program in high school.

In an interview with Teen Reads, Telegemeier discusses her inspiration for the story, which began as a young adult title. Her intention, she professes, was to write a high school story borrowing from her own experience as a member of her high school choir. In this role, she participated in various drama productions as a member of the ensemble and through this experience she developed a deep appreciation for theatre culture and the power and excitement of putting on a play. Though she used her own memories as a springboard for Drama, Telegemeier chose not to base the story solely around her own experiences so that she could push the narrative in different and new directions, also focussing on a casDrama1t of diverse characters (2012); however, Callie’s good friends, Justin and Jesse, for example, were inspired by Telegemeier’s own twin male best friends.

Telegemeier is immensely popular in the graphic novel community among young and old audiences alike. Her style is reminiscent of early two dimensional weekend funny pages cartoons like Calvin and Hobbes and For Better or Worse (Telegemeier, 2016). In her own words, Telegemeier has said that her art is often considered cartoony, rounded, friendly, colourful, warm, and young (Telegemeier, 2016).

Drama exemplifies these qualities, allowing the reader to reminisce about old Saturday morning cartoons, or the brightly coloured manga-inspired cartoons of today. As a whole, Drama is a thoughtful and wholehearted interpretation of self-reflection, friendship, and courage, where the characters beckon readers in with their gentle and kind physical presence, but invite them to stay for their courageous and powerful performance.

 Act I: Significance to Readership

In 2014, Drama appeared on the American Library Association’s Top 10 List of frequently challenged books. The most controversial of these challenges was at an elementary school in Mount Pleasant, Texas, where the book was banned (Lawrence, 2015). The reason it was removed from the school library was because of the explicit sexual content appearing near the end, where a male character, who has taken on the last minute role of the female lead, kisses the leading male actor on stage, as the script calls for. The real reason this moment was so controversial, however, stems from the slow personal realization of this character that he is, indeed, gay.


What makes Drama so significant to the graphic novel medium, and in fact, to youth literature generally, is that its target audience is a middle school demographic. Preteens and teenagers alike are enticed by the books striking colours and cartoonish characters, but also by the story of an empowered and self-affirming girl navigating the waters of teendom, while also grappling with her friend’s coming out (he is also her crush, so she also deals with heartbreak), and offering him the encouragement and friendship he so rightly deserves during this time in his life. Callie’s rejection of another possible boyfriend in preference for some time to herself juxtaposes the typical lovelorn middle school heroine so often promoted in youth literature. Being single or being gay are seen as positive attributes, not negative ones.

Telegemeier has noted that her intention was to always include a gay character, and that she had originally planned to address a high school audience. It was in deliberations with publisher, Scholastic, that she was encouraged, and ultimately excited, to change the characters to middle school teens, as they are largely underserved when it comes to representation of LGBT characters in literature (Lawrence, 2015).

Act 2: Encapsulation, Layout, and Composition in Drama

Panels are a defining characteristic of graphic novels. Through the use of panels, readers can interpret movement, time, intensity, and emotion, without the need for detailed description. The void between panels, in the gutters, helps the reader interpret action and fill in the blanks between panels. In Drama, Telegemeier uses this panelling to great effect to capture the range of emotions for each central character. Nowhere is this more apparent than when Jesse, the controversial LGBT character, takes to the stage dressed as Ms. Maybelle in the school production of Moon Over
. In this scene, Jesse not only confronts his sexuality by sharing an onstage kiss with the lead actor, he also embraces his talent and desire to be a part of a school play.
He accepts himself in this moment, all of himself, and shows the members of his community who he is and what he is capable of. At the height of the scene, where the characters embrace, Telegemeier accentuates the experience with vibrant colours and a page split into two large panels to devote solely to the experiences of these characters. No one else is visible until the next page, bringing the moment back to reality. This encapsulation is a remarkable example of giving meaning to a narrative, but also shinning the spotlight on those who deserve a moment to shine.

Similarly, the art within the panels guides the story. I am not sure how this story would be related in a prose only narrative. Part of what makes it so exciting, honest, and intriguing is the art that propels the reader into the story. One way Telegemeier hones in on this is her acute sense of emotion on the faces of her characters.She has
an uncanny ability to convey a breadth of feelings, and her sparse use of text is a testament to the power of her art. This coupled with the cinematic elements heighten the intensity of emotions. For example, when Callie and Jessie are dancing at the school dance, and Callie begins to get too comfortable for his liking, Telegemeier gradually brings the frame up close to Jessie’s face to show is building discomfort. As she pans out, she adds space between Callie and Jessie, but also distances the reader from the intimacy.
Telegemeier joined forces with Gurihiru, a two-women art design team from Japan to infuse colour into her story (TeenReads, 2012). The colours and shading used are vibrant. Protagonist, Callie, has bright pink and purple hair, a visual representation of her strength and uniqueness that sets her apart from many contemporary middle school heroines. Telegemeier has also noted that they included specific colours to imageshighlight the tone of the book (bright pastels and vibrant funky colours), while also being attuned to the distinct colour pallet of California weather (California is where the story takes place) (TeenReads, 2012). Hints of the year 2012 are apparent with images of texting and instant messaging.

Act 3: Drama and Me, Or Why I Love This Book So Much

I bought Drama during Banned Books Week 2015. I was interested to know more about frequently challenged titles, and when I saw the cover title of this book appear on the ALA website, I was intrigued. Without reading why it was banned or where, I decided to pick up at my next book buy outing and see what all the fuss was about.

Needless to say I devoured this book.

I loved it for so many reasons. The first, and most personal is probably because it reminded me of growing up as a Drama student; participating in plays, learning about stage management and directing. I love the theatre and still sometimes participate as actor and director. Reading a book about drama students, their obsessive desire to succeed, but not to be overshadowed by a love story, hugely impacted for me.

I also loved this book because Jessie, a male character, unsure of his thespian abilities, rises to the occasion and saves the day in a Civil War Era inspired red dress. It takes tremendous courage to walk out on stage, recite lines, sing, pretend to be in love, stage a kiss, and add confront one’s sexuality in front of an entire school to the mix, well, there is a scene that cannot be undervalued!

When I realized why it had been banned, because of Jessie’s sexuality, which critics concede was a “hidden agenda” intent on preaching a lesson, I was shocked!  For me, this scene was so powerful from a thespian’s point of view! The courage displayed in this scene is powerful, and I am dismayed that so many people would prefer their children not have access to it. This is a book that gives voice to the underdogs; a variety of them, and it is a shame that their stories or representations should be contested.

My son has just read Smile and Sisters, Telegemeier’s other books. I can’t wait for him to take this one off of our shelf!!

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Standing Ovation: Critical Review by Ada Calhoun

In her review for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Ada Calhoun contemplates the relevancy of Drama among tween readers.

Of the artistic style of Drama, Calhoun writes,

There are also some deeply emotional scenes. The pages showing Callie running to the baseball field to meet the boy she likes only to find an empty playing field encapsulate young-adult existential misery (2012).

This testament to Telegemeier’s ability to draw emotion, and let this emotion be extended to the readers without the use of words echoes my own opinion that Telegemeier is a pro at showcasing a range of feelings. Calhoun also considers the colour styles of the Gurihiru team, which she interprets as bold and eloquent (2012).

Calhoun notes that Telegemeier is an author who encapsulates on the teenage experience while rooting her work in the reality of teenage life, unlike other contemporary graphic novelists who chose fantastical or science fiction inspired characters instead. She also concedes, (rightly so!!) that Callie is a positive protagonist role model for tween girls because she is “relatable”, she “makes the first move”, and she can “roll with [the] setbacks” of life (2012).

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Calhoun’s interpretation of Callie is perfectly summed up when she states,

“Drama” has an inspirational message for girls […]. What makes Callie happiest is not catching the eye of that week’s crush, but winning the coveted position of stage manager and finding her place in the world (2012).

Calhoun and I agree that Callie is someone to look up to, and someone with whom a young readership can relate. Calhoun also states that with the growing fear of the Internet Age and the possible corruption kids are exposed to, Drama, as well as Telegemeier’s other works, is an opportunity for wholesome and good hearted fun and enjoyment. It is ironic, I suppose, that such a positive, and I believe, on the mark interpretation could be challenged for explicit sexual conduct and hidden agendas.

Calhoun signs off saying that if this book is what the kids are into, “the kids are going to be alright”(2012). What a pity for those denied the opportunity to experience it!

Curtains Down: References

Brenner, R. (2013). YALSA Hub Challenge: Drama, by Raina Telegemeier. School Library Journal. Retrieved from

Calhoun, A. (2012). Life Backstage: Drama, by Raina Telegemeier. Sunday Book Review. New York Times. Retrieved from

CBLDF. (2016). Drama: Case Study. Comic Book Legal Defence Fund. Retrieved from file:///Users/leighachiasson/Documents/University/U%20of%20A/518%20Comics/Drama/Case%20Study_%20Drama%20_%20Comic%20Book%20Legal%20Defense%20Fund.html

Jensen, K. (2013). Graphic Novel Review: Drama by Raina Telegemeier. School Library Journal. Retrieved from

Lawrence, M. (2015). “Drama”: 2014’s Most Gay Banned Book You Haven’t Heard Of!. Unicorn Booty. Retrieved from file:///Users/leighachiasson/Documents/University/U%20of%20A/518%20Comics/Drama/_Drama__%202014’s%20Most%20Banned%20Gay%20Book%20You%20Haven’t%20Heard%20Of%20_%20Unicorn%20Booty.html

Roman, D. (2012). Writing, Reading, and Inspiration in Drama. An Interview with Raina Telegemeier. Nerdy Book Club. Retrieved from

Scholastic. (2016). Drama, by Raina Telegemeier. Teacher Resources. Scholastic. Retrieved from

Teen Reads. (2016). Interview with Raina Telegemeier. Teen Reads. Retrieved from file:///Users/leighachiasson/Documents/University/U%20of%20A/518%20Comics/Drama/Interview%20with%20Raina%20Telgemeier%20_%20Teenreads.html

Telegemeier, R. (2012). Drama. Graphix. Scholastic Inc. New York, NY.

Telegemeier, R. (2016). What is Style?. Go Raina!. Retrieved from