A spirited crowd welcomed author/illustrator Raina Telgemeier to the Twin Cities the other week. Tweens in family and class groups filled a large university auditorium, excited to meet the popular, award-winning cartoonist, on national tour to promote her brand-new graphic novel, Ghosts (2016). This funny, tender-hearted book, colored by Braden Lamb, is one of two works I am spotlighting today, both centered on the November 1- 2 celebration of la Dia de Los Muertos—the Day of the Dead. Author/illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh’s recent picture book biography, Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras, a 2015 award-winner, is the other. Both are great reads for any age, and at any time of year. Especially in October, though, these works can add piquancy and food for thought as Halloween images and activities loom large around us. La Dia de Los Muertoes celebrates a very different view of the supernatural than the one Halloween traditionally promotes.
The 6th grade protagonist in Ghosts, Catrina Allende-Delmar, is both skeptical and fearful of ghosts. She and younger sister Maya are not familiar with the Mexican-American traditions that their mother, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, shunned in her own youth. They do not know that, during the Day of the Dead, loved ones who have died are remembered with joy, honor, and affection. Music, festive food, and dancing are the background notes to this holiday now celebrated beyond Mexico, with Halloween’s fearsome skeletons figuratively transformed into lost loved ones. In Telgemeier’s fantastic novel, this transformation is a literal one, as the windy environs of Catrina and Maya’s new California hometown are filled with ghosts. They may be encountered even on ordinary days, not just during this community’s welcoming Dia de Los Muertos celebration.
Acknowledging death and what mght lie beyond it is particularly important to Catrina and Maya because Maya has cystic fibrosis—a degenerative, fatal disease. As the younger girl poignantly tells Cat, “I have to talk to a ghost . . . . I want to know what happens when you die . . . . Dying isn’t pretend . . . .” Telgemeier’s story insightfully depicts how Maya’s illness has shaped family choices, and how—despite the love between the sisters—Cat sometimes resents the priority given to Maya’s needs. The author/illustrator also realistically depicts how cystic fibrosis typically affects its victims, the main ailment being difficulty in breathing. Ironically, it is breath or wind which also “gives life” to Telgemeier’s ghosts.
Despite these serious problems, Maya is an ebullient kid, quick to make friends, and Ghosts is an upbeat, well-rounded novel, not didactic in the messages it conveys. Making new school friends, meeting new neighbors, and the good-natured back-and-forth of possibly acquiring an early-stages boyfriend are also depicted here. Food is the fun-filled way the girls’ mother comes to terms both with her heritage and the memory of her mother. And there is as much merry-making here as there are anxious moments before Cat discovers just how well-intentioned those ghosts are. Deserted carnival buildings and rocky coastlines at night are two of the eerie, windswept settings that ratchet up Cat’s fears.
Visually, Telgemeier combines cartoon-like drawing with more sophisticated narrative techniques. Sometimes, the images within panels contradict the words with fine dramatic irony; at other points, images support and extend a character’s words. Tense situations, such as Maya’s being taken ill or a spooked Cat running from her fears, are made more forceful through the alternation of close-ups with long or mid-distance views and changes in perspective. Several action-packed wordless episodes—some extending as long as ten pages—capture the reader’s attention, leaving us breathless in the best possible way! Colorist Lamb does a fine job of enhancing text and word balloons as well as balancing composition through color choice. Ghosts ends on a high note, one maintained by the down-to-earth, informative author notes and thank you that conclude the book.
Telgemeier’s sly sense of humor is further confirmed as we turn to Duncan Tonatiuh’s picture book biography, Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras (2015). Cat and Maya’s welcoming (human) neighbors are named the Calaveras family. As Tonatiuh explains, the Spanish word calaveras literally means “skull.” Calaveras has also come to mean the satirical skeleton images, associated with the Day of the Dead, best known through the work of Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852 – 1913). Posada was himself no slouch in the humor department! He poked fun not only at politicians but at the vanity and foibles of wealthy and working class people too.
This picture book is visually rich in so many ways. Tonatiuh depicts Posada and some other Mexicans with darker skin tones and facial features that reflect their Aztec heritage. Many of Funny Bones’ pages are bordered by bones alternating with other emblems that indicate the passage of time—for instance, the pencils of Posada’s youth give way to inkpots as Tonituah describes how the artist began to etch his work. And even life’s ups and downs—growing families, disastrous floods, fame and success, war—are depicted with cohesive visual flair, with centered images often arranged in circles. I particularly relished the double page spreads showing how the Dia de Muertos was celebrated during Posada’s lifetime and Tonatiuh’s final imagining of what Posada’s calaveras might “look like nowadays.” Those roller blading and skateboarding skeletons are a hoot!
Young readers will relish these images along with Posada’s more serious, sometimes frightening calaveras. Those are reproduced and offset here by Tonatiuh on separate, different-colored pages, with thoughtful questions about what these complex images might mean about human nature, life, and death. Answers are left up to the reader. Along with such food for thought, Funny Bones also provides more down-to-earth information. It has clear, sequential images and brief explanations of the steps involved in the artistic processes of lithography, engraving, and etching. Tonatiuh’s colorful images and crisp words are a fine tribute to Posada’s art and a holiday that celebrates life as much as it does death. I think readers will be as eager as I was to read the author’s note and bibliography, which also contains information about where one may see Posada’s work in person in the U.S. A.
What sorts of skeletons will you be creating or looking for this October? Spooky or kooky . . . terrifying or terrifically friendly? Possibly la Dia de los Muertos is already one of the holidays you celebrate. Perhaps it is time for a new (or new “old”) tradition for you and the young people in your life. Perhaps you do not have to choose—after all, October 31 is followed by November 1 and 2. First Halloween and then the Day of the Dead? As Cat and Maya might say, “Wheeee!”!