A much-acclaimed graphic novel by Raina Telgemeir pokes below the surface creepiness of “hauntings” to explore how we feel about death.
Ghosts by Raina Telegemeir. Scholastic Graphix, 2016, 239 pages
Reading level: 10-12
Recommended for: 12-up (with cautions)
Catrina, or “Cat,” isn’t happy about moving from L.A. to the northern California coast, but her dad just got this new job. Also, her parents believe the move will be better for Cat’s little sister Maya, who has cystic fibrosis. Why this is better isn’t explained: less smog? More fog? Maya is excited about the move, but then, she’s excited about everything—a more positive attitude would be hard to find. And the prospect that Bahia de la Luna is haunted—or at least very friendly to ghosts—provokes entirely opposite responses in the sisters. Their new neighbor Carlos does the same: Maya gushes over him; Cat holds him at arm’s length because Carlos seems to be an expert on the local haunting scene. A creepy experience with him that sends Maya to the hospital seems to justify Cat’s opinion, until the annual Day of the Dead rolls around. The town’s Hispanic culture makes a big deal of Dia de los Muertes, when, with altars, shrines, and fiestas, they welcome the spirits of their dear departed. Can it be that ghosts are to be welcomed, not feared?
Ghosts turns out to be not really a ghost story but a death-ain’t-so-scary story. It’s a way for Cat to come to terms with the possibility of her little sister dying at any time. In her afterword the author describes her first experience at a Dia de los Muertes celebration, and her astonishment at how joyous it was, in spite of the skeletons—not creepy at all. With Carlos’s Uncle Jose (a cute skeleton who died at the age of 6) dancing with Maya in the closing panels, death is indeed not creepy; it seems like just a hop, skip, and jump to the other side. Such a view is way too smiley-face, of course, and Christian parents will be decidedly uncomfortable with the celebrations and quasi-religious altars, but Ghosts is one of this season’s buzz books and could be a Newbery contender. It could also be an opportunity to talk about the culture’s view of death compared with a biblical view (see discussion questions below).
Also by Raina Telgemeir: Drama
Cautions: Supernatural (unbiblical view of the dead and their spirits)
Overall rating: 3.25 (out of 5)