I finally grabbed a copy from the public library so I could get a chance to read it, and I was impressed. Not only is the story well-told, but the pictures were easy to follow--I didn't spend the whole time going "Wait, is that the friend or the sister?" like I've had to do with many other graphic novels. It also struck me that unlike a lot of highly illustrated books (Timmy Failure, Dear Dumb Diary, etc.), Smile isn't a silly, funny book, but a book that has a lot of substance in a very accessible format. So I went looking for more books that might appeal to the same readers. It was hard to find many for middle school readers, but there were a few that would be great for slightly older teenagers.
Persepolis is a bigger departure from Smile. The art is less cartoony and more realistic, with fewer colors. The story is also more grim, and some elements veer into the PG-13 area. This memoir is about growing up female in Iran during the Islamic Revolution (1980s). Marjane Satrapi's family were educated and encouraged their children to think for themselves, but it was not safe for anyone, particularly a young woman, to speak out or stand up for themselves during this time. Her family eventually decided to send her away to school in Austria for four years to keep her safe, but she was lonely and reckless so far from home. Satrapi is very honest about her own failings and bad decisions. Some people who read the book ended up not liking her as a character, but most people agree that her story is fascinating all the same. There are three sequels to this book.
Stitches is the most "adult" book on this list, and is recommended for ages 16 and up. David Small grew up in small town America in the 1960s, in a family of angry silence. A neglected medical issue leads to him mostly losing his voice after an operation. The story uncovers generations of mental illness and psychological abuse. It's a relief to realize that he made it out of that situation and has lead what seems to be a happy and fulfilling life as a comic artist and writer.
All three of these books passed my personal Smile test--they were interesting biographies that didn't meander all over the place, and they were well illustrated graphic novels with art that pulled me further in to the story instead of confusing me. Please share titles of other graphic novels you think fit the bill--I'd be interested in hearing about fiction as well.