Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier is a graphic novel about an older sister trying to come to terms with her younger sister's cystic fibrosis. Cat knows her sister will probably die young, but she's also upset at having her life turned upside down by a move. Over the next few months, Cat, though, makes friends and begins the process of finally accepting her sister's CF.
The book is written for middle graders. From the reader's I've spoken with (many who have been eagerly telling me to read Ghosts), they pick up on the cystic fibrosis as the central big plot. That a child their age or a little younger has to already be thinking about her own death is a BIG heavy thing. It's hitting them like Bridge to Terabithia.
But as a handful of reviewers have pointed out, how the book addresses Maya's condition, especially her death is steeped in cultural appropriation and cultural erasure. So before I go into the book's problems — let me give you the TLDR version. I am still recommending the book but I hope teachers / parents use the book as part of a lesson plan.
Like me, Raina Telgemeier is a Californian. She's a little younger than I am but we're close enough in age to have grown up in the same California culture. The good and bad of this book is that it's quicntenstially Californian — white, middle class, Californian. But there's a lot more to California that gets missed by the curriculum that favors the white, Christian version of things.
Let's look at the way Cat comes to terms with her sister's mortality — the ghosts that haunt the seaside town. Having ghosts befriend Maya and scare Cat because of what they symbolize, is fine. It makes narrative sense. But— there are plenty of different types of ghosts to pick.
Here in the Bay Area, cemeteries are right in the middle of town (the exception being San Francisco which moved them to Colma. Imagine, then, if Cat and Maya had moved to Colma, to be greeted by ghosts who were still feeling homesick for San Francisco. Along with that could be the earthquake, fire, plague and other bits and pieces of the City's history.
Instead, though, the fictional town, Bahía de la Luna, or "Moon Bay" has the remains of a Spanish mission. I must be one of only a handful of Californians who didn't have to do the dreaded Mission project in 4th grade — both my kids did as did my husband. My school, instead, decided to show us suburban kids what being bussed was liked. So I spent my fourth grade driving across town to Webster Elementary and later Gage Elementary.
Imagine, then, my shock as a parent when my oldest child had to create a replica of a mission for 4th grade. Although the California state curriculum says that children should learn about the changing history of their state, what happens instead is that kids (and parents) are roped into a Catholic church propaganda piece, rebuilding pro-missionary replicas of buildings that were the headquarters for the systematic destruction of native cultures up and down the future state of Alto California / lower 2/3 of present day California.
If the author had to do a mission project, she probably didn't have do anything beyond learn how it was built, when it was built, where it was built, and who founded it. There was probably no mention of the local people beyond converting them to Christianity and "educating" them. Given that atmosphere of the project it's natural to see how easily the native people are removed from this story.
Now as Cat and Maya's adopted home is "Moon Bay" it's clearly a nod to Half Moon Bay. Interestingly, there is no mission in Half Moon Bay. There's Mission Dolores in San Francisco and there's Mission San José in Fremont (which was rebuilt in the 1980s, meaning local kids are making replicas of a replica). That's not to say Half Moon Bay doesn't have a cemetery — it has the Odd Fellows Cemetery on RTE 92 as you come into town. It has a view of the ocean just like in the book and it would have saved the trouble of erasing the Ohlone by making the ghost story something different.
Although the ghosts are said to like it in Bahía de la Luna because of the wind and fog (the same reasons given for the move for Maya's health), their arrival en masse is tied to el Dia de Los Muertos. In this part of the story, Cat, named for la Calavera de la Catrina, a piece of political satire created by Manuel Manilla and popularized by José Guadalupe Posada and now somehow the de facto face the commercial side of el Dia de Los Muertos.
It's not to say that the holiday isn't celebrated in California — it most certainly is. But it's not an all night Jarritos drinking dance at a graveyard. Yes, there are craft booths for children (just as there are at vacation bible school). The crafts keep the little ones entertained and helps them learn about the holiday and its traditions. But it's a personal, family, and community thing. It's a time to reflect on the passage of time, the changing of the seasons, and to remember loved ones. The events are typically held in community centers or at local cemeteries, if there is a church associated with it.
So why the dancing skeletons? Well, that comes from a 1929 Disney Silly Symphony called The Dancing Skeletons. It has nothing to do with El Dia de Los Muertos. Nor does it have any thing to do with Halloween. It's just four skeletons having a jam session when they are awoken by a pair of fighting cats.
So is the inclusion of el Dia de Los Muertos an intrinsically bad thing? No. But it should be done with care and probably with some advice / editing from someone more familiar with the holiday. It shouldn't be tied up into actual naming of the characters, such as Cat, or the family that first introduces her to the town's celebration, the Calavera family. Yup. The skull family. If this were a Halloween themed story, I suppose Carlos Calavera would be named Jack Skellington.
Remember, the point of the book is to help children learn about cystic fibrosis and more generally about death. It's to teach children how to come to terms with death if a loved one is facing a terminal illness because children do sometimes die. The California mission setting, the inclusion of El Dia de Los Muertos, with the exclusion of the Ohlone (or a fictional native people stand in) is unnecessary and disappointing. They are there to provide a setting that it's California, but frankly this is a case where making a general story, set in any haunted seaside town would have been better.
Comment #1: Monday, October 3, 2016 at 10:50:20
Wow. Thanks for this great insight. I never would have picked up on the Missions— wow. Here in Ohio, we would visit "Indian Mounds" (Native American burial sites), but even 40 years ago, there was mention of how the Native cultures suffered with the settlers. How interesting that doing Mission projects has become so ingrained, although I can certainly see how it is hard to change such a long standing "tradition".
Comment #2: Monday, October 3, 2016 at 08:44:05
There's an entire industry built up around these Mission Projects — providing supplies, kits, and blueprints. Go to any public library's children's section and the California history are will be full of two topics: missions and the gold rush, with very little of anything else.