Reading and Wrestling with GHOSTS by Raina Telgemeier
Edited August 4, 2016 to add: Faythe Arredondo is one of the many individuals I have seen express some concerns about Ghosts on Twitter. On August 4th, 2016 she wrote a post about her thoughts on Teen Services Underground, which I highly recommend you read.
At ALA this year I was excited to pick up an ARC of GHOSTS by author Raina Telgemeier, mainly because The Teen loves this author and it was my mommy guilt gift.
Upon return I handed it to her and she promptly read it. Our conversation about it went something like this:
Me: Did you like GHOSTS?
The Teen: Loved it!
Me: What’s it about?
The Teen: Ghosts.
I had it on the back burner that I wanted to read it, primarily because I know that it had a character with Cystic Fibrosis and Thing 2’s friend’s father passed away in November of last year from CF. I was curious to see how Telgemeier presented CF in this story.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and I started hearing concerns here and there – primarily on Twitter – about GHOSTS. There has been some concern expressed by several people about the way Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is presented in the story. So I finally sat down and read the book.
I initially thought that the discussion of Dia De Los Muertos in the story was a small part of the book, but no, it is a pretty big part of the story. The main character, Catrina, has just moved to an environment that will supposedly be better for her little sister Maya, who has Cystic Fibrosis. This new location has a strong Mexican population who believes heavily in the concept of ghosts and participates in the yearly Dia De Los Muertos tradition. The two story lines intersect in that Maya knows that she will die from the CF and she wants to contact the ghosts to find out what will happen to her after she dies. It’s a moving story about a young girl having to face the very real knowledge not that she will someday die, but that she will someday soon die from known causes. It’s not a matter of if but when.
From a storytelling point of view, I absolutely understand why Raina Telgemeier chose this tradition to tell this story. And as I read it, it seemed like there was nothing but respect for the culture and traditions being discussed. Catrina, who is half Mexican, is skeptical, in part because she didn’t grow up with these traditions being passed down to her, but I don’t think skepticism is in itself disrespect. Many tweens and teens are skeptical, even of deeply held family beliefs and traditions. Catrina’s skepticism and lack of knowledge is balanced by other characters.
But is the depiction of Dia De Los Muertos an accurate and respectful presentation? Reading Ghosts, it is hard to tell exactly what it is people believe happen on this day. In the book, literal spirits cross into the human world and are able to interact with people, even touching them physically. They dance, they play in bands, they cook feasts. I personally do not believe in ghosts, but I know plenty of people who do. But what do people believe happen on this day? It was hard for me as a reader to know if this was just a storytelling device or a real life interpretation of Dia De Los Muertos and what its adherents believe happen on this day. There is some end matter on the topic, but to me it did not seem in depth enough to communicate with readers what the real beliefs and intents of this day are. I do think Telgemeier needed to do a better job of making sure readers understood what was real and what was creative license used for the story.
The other question that comes up as a reader, especially considering the #ownvoices movement, is whether or not Raina Telgemeier has a right to tell this story. The end matter does not in any way suggest that this is her culture. In fact, she states that she attended a Dia De Lost Muertos festival which moved her and it became a part of this story. As an outsider, I completely understand how you can participate in something like this and become enamored of the culture and want to study it further and incorporate it into your story. However, questions about cultural appropriation – using a culture that is not your own to achieve personal gain – are definite questions that we are currently wrestling with. As a reader, my ongoing wrestling with the idea of #ownvoices and cultural appropriation definitely came into play, but then I am an adult who is more fully aware of the many varied, in depth and high stakes conversations that are happening in many ways around our world regarding these topics. What about younger readers?
As a mother, I wondered about tweens and teens being able to read books critically without adults leading the conversation. Keep in mind, these are topics I talk with The Teen about a lot. We live and breathe these discussion in my home. And yet, when I asked The Teen the first time about reading Ghosts she raised no concerns. After hearing people’s concerns online, I went back and asked her again about Ghosts, this time with some more pointed questions.
Did you think it was respectful to other cultures I asked? To which she replied yes. But how do you know it is respectful I asked? We talked some about what she could do to investigate that, including researching the author’s background, reading critical reviews, and researching the day more in depth.
Do you think the characters had a right to participate in the Dia De Los Muertos festival I asked? Yes, she said, because the family had Mexican heritage. She was actually able to relate to me very well who the characters were, what their relationships were, and how this affected the story.
Do you think the author has a right to write this story I asked? To this, she didn’t really have an answer. And to be honest, I don’t either.
I talked some via text to Alana Graves, who had raised some concerns on Twitter. We both agreed that we THOUGHT that the author was being respectful, but that we didn’t necessarily feel comfortable making that declaration because it’s not our culture, so it’s not our place to say if the title is respectful or not.
From a storytelling perspective, I thought that using Dia De Los Muertos to tell this story made perfect sense and was very effective and moving. I understood what the author was trying to do and felt that she had done it successfully. That’s not the same thing as saying that I felt she accurately portrayed this culture or this tradition, because I am not in a position to do so. Neither is it the same as saying she had a right to tell this story. This is a concept I am wrestling with: When do authors of fiction have a right to tell a story? Do they have a right to tell certain stories?
As an outsider who has seen friends struggle with Cystic Fibrosis, I thought that Telgemeier did a good job with this aspect of the story as well. The stress, the sometimes resentment, and some basic information about the disease were all portrayed in ways that I felt worked well for the story and in no way diminished the character of Maya or brought the storyline to a screeching halt.
In the end, I am left thinking a lot about this book. I am very familiar with the #ownvoices discussions and am wrestling with what that means to me as a reader, librarian, reviewer, and mom. And I am very aware of the many conversations that are happening right now about many other books, including When We Was Fierce (which I have not read) and Cloudwish (which I have also not read). Each time I approach a book that includes a different culture, a disability or a mental health issue, I wrestle with how to examine that depiction critically, how to acknowledge my own biases, and how to ask myself (and my teens) the right questions. Hard conversations are happening right now in the world of children’s and ya publishing, but they are important conversations. I’m trying to do a lot of listening.
Have you read GHOSTS by Raina Telgemeir? What did you think and why? She is a very popular author and there will be high demand for this title.
Publisher’s Book Description
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. (Graphix, September 2016)
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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