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.
Raina Telgemeier has masterfully created a moving and insightful story about the power of family and friendship, and how it gives us the courage to do what we never thought possible.
‘Ghosts’ is the 2016 middle grade graphic novel from Eisner Award-winning creator, Raina Telgemeier.
I read this novel over the Christmas break, and it was exactly the perfect kind of reading for hot summer nights, and middle-of-the-day food-coma recovery. I love Telgemeier, and reading her latest ‘Ghosts’ made me fall in love with her storytelling anew, and had me reaching to re-read two other favourites from her in ‘Smile’ and ‘Drama’. The latter hasn’t been usurped as my favourite Telgemeier book yet, but ‘Ghosts’ comes pretty darn close…
The story follows Catrina, who along with her family moves to the fictional Northern California town of Bahía de la Luna (‘Moon Bay’) for the sake of her little sister Maya, who has cystic fibrosis and whose lungs will benefit from the seaside location and year-round fog.
The book’s entire premise provides a really interesting emotional conundrum - as we see Catrina dealing with her conflicted feelings of wanting what’s best for Maya’s health, alongside her disgruntlement at being uprooted from her home and friends for Maya’s sake. And while Telgemeier’s books in the past have been wholly contemporary in genre, and could well have spent the entire novel unpicking that one conundrum – ‘Ghosts’ is a little change-up for the author, who has added in a magical element to elevate the story …
Because Bahía de la Luna is famous for being a ghostly haven – a particular township in America where ghosts can be easily found, thanks to the perfect climate conditions that allows them to be carried on the wind, and take nourishment from the natural earth. Catrina and Maya are in town on their first day, on a mini-exploration trek when they come across local boy (and ghost-tour operator) Carlos, who fuels Maya’s interests in their new ghostly neighbours.
The culmination of the town’s ghostly affection and the story itself, is Día de Muertos – the ‘Day of the Dead’ Mexican holiday. It’s a multi-day holiday that focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died, and help support their spiritual journey – but in Bahía de la Luna, it also means physically meeting with ghosts and dearly departed loved ones, for a literal celebration.
I’ll admit that I thought the ghostly addition to this story would be heavy-handed, for how it sits alongside Catrina grappling with her sister’s Cystic Fibrosis, and her coming to understand that a move to Bahía is meant to improve Maya’s quality of life, but won’t cure her of the degenerative disease. But this is Telgemeier after all; one of the best writers for young, middle-grade audiences and while the lessons and connections are there to be made, it’s actually quite subtle and lovely what she’s imparting; about acceptance and how multi-layered grief can be.
It’s a tall order to write a story that teeters on the brink of exploring one of the most devastating losses a family will one day endure, while also choosing to highlight how a life cut short can still be celebrated, instead of only mourned … but Telgemeier does it, and with her trademark humour and cast of flawed, multi-dimensional young characters – this is why she’s one of the best writing for middle-grade audiences right now (not just one of the best graphic novelists writing for them, but one of the best authors – period.)
‘Ghosts’ was a smart and delightful read, and while the end felt just a little bit too convenient and rushed, overall I thought there was a lot of good to be unpacked and praised here, making it a truly heartfelt MG read – particularly for the unique angle it takes in exploring grief and loss for young people, and through the lens of such a beautiful cultural celebration as Día de Muertos. Outstanding.