Cat and her family are moving so her younger sister Maya can be by the sea for her cystic fibrosis. But then a neighbor tells them ghosts Bahía de la Luna is full of ghosts. Cat is afraid, but Maya desperately wants to talk t them. Can Cat find a way to be brave for Maya?
Ghosts tells the moving story of two sisters trying to find the courage to live and to die. While Cat worries about meeting an actual ghost, Maya longs to speak to them. She has to know what will happen when she dies–and what will happen to her sister. The two struggle to resolve their fears while still maintaining their friendship. But they may find their answers in a very unlikely place– Día de los Muertos.
Raina Telgemeier writes in the back of the book that she was inspired by celebrating Día de los Muertos in San Francisco. Her experience of the celebration undoubtedly does not match the experience of many–what happens in San Francisco in a street festival does not represent the full spectrum of ceremonies and celebrations that might be performed to honor the dead. The sisters in this book are interested in remembering those who have gone before. Their mother shares memories of their grandmother and the girls set up an altar for her. However, most of the plot focuses the girls’ individuals goals, presumably because this provides more action than setting up an altar does. Maya wants to ask a ghost about what it means to die, while Cat wants to find the courage to help her sister try. The celebration in this book is a literal party where the living dance and speak with the dead. It’s not surprising that some reviewers have found this representation problematic, though I do doubt that middle school readers will believe that this is what Día de los Muertos actually looks like, as some criticism has suggested. Preteens do generally know that the living and the dead are not partying together every year.
I imagine that the representation of Día de los Muertos here is supposed to show what the day might look like to two kids who have not grown up with the tradition, but are now being introduced to their heritage. They might very well connect it to Halloween, a tradition with which they are familiar, and they might very well see a “celebration of the dead” as a literal celebration. And a joyful celebration does not have to exclude some solemnity or reverence. In short, I do not think Telgemeier was attempting to represent Día de los Muertos in all its forms, but instead was trying to imagine what the significance of such a day might look like to two children who are faced with the possibility of one of their own deaths.
The story in this regard is incredibly poignant. Telgemeier captures sisterhood perfectly, matching the cheerful Maya with the more reserved Cat, and exploring all the nuances of their love as they explore together, tease each other, and argue with each other. Their relationship is beautiful and that makes the reality of Maya’s situation really resonate with the readers–Maya is truly concerned about how Cat will cope if and when she dies. She is also, of course, concerned about herself.
In this way, the book really works. It asks questions about how to live and how to die, and matches it with a day meant to celebrate the lives of those who have gone before, and remind people that their loved ones are still there, even in death. Perhaps it will even inspire children to learn more about Día de los Muertos and how it is celebrated.