Ghosts: A Graphic Novel Review

Ghosts by Raina TelgemeierCat’s little sister Maya has Cystic Fibrosis and everyone hopes that the climate in Bahía de la Luna will help her breathing. Cat is sad to leave her friends behind and she isn’t sure what to expect when everyone in town starts talking about ghosts. With the Day of the Dead approaching, all of Bahía de la Luna is preparing to welcome the town’s otherworldly guests.

Cat is afraid of the ghosts while Maya is determined to meet one. Their search for new friends, ghostly and otherwise, will bring Cat and Maya closer together. It will also introduce them to the wonders to be found in their new town–especially when it comes to el dia de los muertos in Ghosts (2016) by Raina Telgemeier.

At this point in her career, Raina Telgemeier hardly needs an introduction. The detailed artwork is a vibrant and beautiful as ever. Stunning artwork brings Bahía de la Luna to life. A heartwarming atmosphere (with a diverse case of characters) combines well with Telgemeier’s signature artwork to create a satisfying read.

The problem is that Ghosts isn’t just a book about ghosts. Instead Telgemeier borrows and embellishes elements of the Day of the Dead for her plot. Notably, she also features calaveras (skeletons doing everyday things) that are often synonymous with the Day of the Dead. Calaveras as we know them were created by Jose Guadalupe Posada–an artist who is never mentioned in Ghosts. (If you want to know more about Calaveras, check out Duncan Tonantiuh’s excellent Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras.)

Then there’s the issue of actual ghosts playing any role at all: While the ghosts in the story are fun and key to the plot, they are not true to the spirit or significance of Day of the Dead in Mexican culture.

I can (and on first reading did) give a pass to a lot of things. Some readers have questioned the fact that Cat and Maya know nothing about their Mexican heritage on their mother’s side. While that raises another red flag, it didn’t bother me in the context of  the story where Cat’s mother was estranged from her family and lost touch with her own mother.

Before digging into other reviews and posts, I also didn’t know enough about the Day of the Dead to pinpoint the specific problems in Ghosts although I knew there might be some (it’s unfortunately always a risk when authors write outside of their own culture/expertise).

Because Telgemeier is such a popular author, it’s not possible to simply say this book should be avoided. As I said, it is a thoughtful story in many ways and were it simply a fantasy comic, it would work quite nicely. Unfortunately the cultural elements are handled poorly and need a lot of context.

If you are going to pick up Ghosts or if you know a young reader who is, try to start a conversation about it so that everyone can learn something from it.

Here are some posts to get you started:

Reading While White has a thoughtful discussion on this problem including a very insightful comment from author/illustrator Yuyi Morales.

Teen Services Underground also has a review from librarian Faythe Arredondo who is half-Mexican and discusses some of the culturally problematic aspects she found while reading the graphic novel.

Karen Jensen at Teen Librarian Toolbox also explores some of the issues surrounding Ghosts in a post on her blog.

Debbie Reese has a thorough look at Ghosts complete with images from the book at American Indians in Children’s Literature.

.*An advance copy of this title was acquire from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2016*

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