Author: Raina Telgemeier
Genres: Graphic Novel/Magical Realism
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now
Summary: Catrina and her family are moving to the coast of Northern California because her little sister, Maya, is sick. Cat isn’t happy about leaving her friends for Bahía de la Luna, but Maya has cystic fibrosis and will benefit from the cool, salty air that blows in from the sea. As the girls explore their new home, a neighbor lets them in on a secret: There are ghosts in Bahía de la Luna. Maya is determined to meet one, but Cat wants nothing to do with them. As the time of year when ghosts reunite with their loved ones approaches, Cat must figure out how to put aside her fears for her sister’s sake — and her own.
Review: With Hispanic Heritage month just finishing and Dia De Los Muertos coming in a little over a week, I thought Raina Telgemeier’s new graphic novel would be a good fit for this week’s review. I’ve never reading anything by Telgemeier before, nor have I reviewed a graphic novel either, so I went into this book without any preconceived notions. I saw that the characters were Mexican and thought – cool! I saw the inclusion of Dia de los Muertos and got excited about an author who incorporated a culturally significant holiday. Unfortunately, I didn’t stay that way.
At it’s heart, Ghosts is a story about family, specifically sisters. At the beginning of the story there is a bit of tension between the sister, specifically on Cat’s behalf as Maya seems none the wiser, because they are moving to a small town in Northern California due to Maya’s cystic fibrosis. We also learn that the two shared friends which gives us insight into how much Maya depends on Cat, and how often Cat is responsible for her sister. While there is love between the two, and they are close, Cat does yearn to establish herself apart from her sister. Initially this makes Cat seem like a bit of a brat, but to me, she was written as the typical teenager who is trying to adjust to life just when peer relationships are becoming important. I was actually endeared to Cat because of it as I could totally understand where she was coming from. It also made her growth more believable. Through meeting friends and Maya’s illness taking a turn for the worse, Cat is able to come to a place of acceptance and be open to her new life in Bahia de la Luna.
I love magical realism and Ghosts is swimming with it because, well it is essentially a ghost story. Cat is really afraid of ghosts as they make her think about death, especially in terms of Maya’s illness, so much of Cat’s growth comes with accepting that she lives in a town that is filled with harmless ghosts. At the beginning Cat runs away from the ghosts because she believes they harmed Maya, while Maya just wants to get to know the ghosts. Eventually, in a lovely heart to heart, Cat decides to go to the midnight Dia de los Metros party the town has for the ghosts on behalf of Maya. This is also where the book falters. In incorporating Dia de los Muertos at this point of the story, Telgemeier changes the meaning of the holiday to fit the narrative. The celebration of Dia de los Muertos doesn’t come out of no where as Telgemeier does a good job of explaining the ofrendas, and having the girls make an alter for their grandmother, but the main crux of the holiday for Telgemeier is the big party at the end. Though, I will say this reminded me of the ending of The Book of Life (if I’m remembering it correctly) so I am a bit conflicted with Telgemeier’s use of a festival like atmosphere to the day instead of the close family atmosphere. I do know that Dia de los Muertos festivals are growing as more and more people come to celebrate the holiday, for example, my school incorporates Dia de los Muertos into our Halloween activities as we create a communal alter to celebrate deceased family members, so while her use of the holiday in such a manner is troublesome, it does reflect how the holiday is currently changing.
What I did love, besides the story of sisterly love, is how diverse this novel is. Bahia de la Luna is a small town but actually reflects the population of California as I know it. The friends that Cat meets are of all different backgrounds and in crowd scenes, the variety of the human palette is reflected. Telgemeier also has a character state that the ghosts prefer to speak in Spanish because many of the ghost there are from Mexico (which CA originally was) and she doesn’t translate the Spanish. All the interactions with the ghosts are in Spanish therefore the reader must figure out what the ghosts are saying if they don’t understand Spanish. To me, this inclusion is important because I feel like when Spanish, or any language really, is translated on the page, it’s made for the comfort of the reader and may not actually fit the story. The fact that her publishers allowed her to not translate the story made me respect them so much, and added to my enjoyment.
Recommendation: Overall, I enjoyed the book for it’s sweet story despite it’s troublesome elements. I think before this is shared with kids, an adult reads it for themselves and makes their own decision. Or even, read it with a group of students and use it as a learning tool for Dia de los Muertos.