I love comic books. I have a massive collection of Superman comic books. So you would think that graphic novels would be a natural fit. Yet, I really haven’t read many graphic novels for kids. My incorrect theory is that graphic novels came about in children’s literature to appeal to the reluctant reader and I’m not a reluctant reader. Maybe I just get my fill from reading the Man of Steel. Who knows! Either way, it’s hard to ignore the uptick in quality among graphic novels for children in recent years (EL DEAFO, ROLLER GIRL). Is GHOSTS by Raina Telgemeier a valuable contribution to the genre?
Catrina isn’t happy about moving to a new town and starting a new school but she takes one for the team like she always does when her sister’s well-being is at stake. Cat’s sister Maya has cystic fibrosis and the girls’ family is moving to a Northern California coastal town because they believe the sea air will be good for Maya’s breathing. While exploring their new community, the sisters meet Carlos who lets them in on a not-so-secret secret about Bahia de la Luna… It’s visited by ghosts! As Cat prepares for the town’s annual Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival, she wrestles with anxiety over new friendships and her sister’s health.
Raina Telgemeier’s books (SMILE, SISTERS, DRAMA) have always been popular with my students (girls, mostly) but I’ve never been interested enough to read one myself. One year I noticed that my classroom copy of SMILE just kept getting passed from girl to girl to girl and when I asked a few why they liked the book so much they were all in agreement that the characters spoke and behaved like real kids. Telgemeier seems to have the ability to tap into today’s children and speak their language through her characters. In GHOSTS, Maya’s energy is infectious (despite her weakening health) while any protective sibling will be able to relate to Cat’s anxiety and concern (Cat is more concerned about Maya’s health that Maya is). I think the inclusion of ghosts brings in a whole new set of readers for Telgemeier (not just girls) and with the backgrounds and ethnicities of my own students becoming more and more diverse every year, I appreciate the Mexican background of these characters.
However, I would be remiss not to mention, or share my thoughts on the controversy brewing about some of the cultural story elements of GHOSTS. There are two criticisms, really. The first is in regards to the ghosts that inhabit Bahia de la Luna. The ghosts come to Bahia de la Luna through a Spanish mission. Carlos explains to the girls that the Mission serves as a gateway to the undead. The ghosts are happy and interact peacefully with Bahia de la Luna’s citizens (as long as orange soda is supplied). However, the history of Spanish missions are not pleasant. Catholics used the missions to forcefully spread Christianity, wiping out large numbers of natives and their culture. Some readers have taken offense to the idea of Telgemeier’s ghosts having no recollection of this history. Is this cultural appropriation?
The other criticism is in regards to the Day of the Dead celebration at the end of the book. The Day of the Dead celebration in Bahia de la Luna takes on a whole new meaning when the dead literally visit and participate in the celebration. Critics of the book believe that Telgemeier has been disrespectful of the real event, whitewashing it in a way, and even confusing it with Halloween.
In my opinion, Telgemeier’s heart is in the right place. Carlos explains to the girls that the mission in Bahia de la Luna serves as a gateway for many ghosts, implying that the ghosts that visit did not live at the mission. They are merely using it to cross over. The mission is a set piece, nothing more, and I don’t feel that Telgemeier purposely misleads or misinforms readers. If anything, curious readers may choose to investigate the missions further and learn about their brutal history on their own. Telgemeier’s work of fiction here, doesn’t need to be their guide. As for the Day of the Dead celebration, I feel the same way. Telgemeier includes enough accurate details about the celebration (ofrendas, Catrina figure, November 1 celebration) to not mislead readers. She even draws upon her own actual experiences and includes an accurate description of the celebration in the back of her book. In this work of fiction, it would be perfectly understandable if the Day of the Dead celebration took on a different look than its traditional one since actual ghosts are participating. And as with the missions, readers are invited to investigate on their own. I think the perspectives offered by those criticizing the book are valuable and thought-provoking, but I also find them a little unfair toward Telgemeier because I don’t think they actually apply to her book.
Criticisms aside, GHOSTS doesn't spend much time on the bookshelf in my classroom. It is always in some student's hands, like most of Telgemeier's books. Even boys are giving this one a go and enjoying it. The Scholastic book fair rolled into town this week for parent conferences and Maya and Cat are plastered on most of the marketing around my school too! In my opinion, GHOSTS does not compare to recent graphic novel tour de forces like EL DEAFO or ROLLER GIRL. Telgemeier's attempt at magical realism falls a little flat because the details of this world are not fully explored (Where do the ghosts come from? Why do they love orange soda?). Like EL DEAFO and ROLLER GIRL however, GHOSTS is a touching story that will broaden readers' perspectives.