Tuesday, September 13, 2016

On Ghosts and the "Magic" of Day of the Dead

Raina Telgemeier has a new book coming out, so expect major excitement in your libraries and classrooms. (In my relatively large public library system in Cincinnati, Ghosts has a waiting list of 55 people; kids’ books don’t have waiting lists that lengthy unless they’re written by J.K. Rowling!) Of course publisher Scholastic/Graphix is doing a big marketing push, including the #GhostsTakeover hashtag on Twitter this past weekend, and of course the book is getting lots of love in review journals (four stars as of this writing). These are things we expect when a hugely popular author releases a new book.

In Ghosts, tween protagonist Catrina and her family have just moved to foggy northern California to make breathing easier for her little sister, Maya, who has cystic fibrosis. They meet neighbor Carlos, who is way into ghosts (he gives the sisters a ghost-themed tour) and sparks a renewed interest for the girls into their own Mexican heritage. This all happens alongside the coming of Fall, Halloween, and the Day of the Dead.

At BEA in Chicago in May and then again at ALA Annual in Orlando in June, many book lovers scored ARCs of the book and so the buzz increased. But there was also a growing chorus of concerned voices, too. In a post for the blog Teen Librarian Toolbox (hosted by School Library Journal), Karen Jensen wrestled with the culturally vague aspects of the book, especially concerning Telgemeier’s treatment of the Day of the Dead; very soon thereafter, California-based public librarian Faythe Arredondo blogged about Ghosts at Teen Services Underground. “Borrowing from other cultures to tell your story may seem minor,” wrote Arredondo, “but it can be harmful to people of that culture.” Before you read any further here, take a look at what Jensen had to say, and read Arredondo's thoughtful post. (For more insider’s perspectives on Day of the Dead, read this and this.)

Recently Ghosts received a positive review from the New York Times, in which Dan Kois wrote that “Day of the Dead plays nicely into... dynamics of Mexican-American family life.” But is that really the case? Okay, if you go to a Day of the Dead celebration later this Fall, it is true that many will wear Day of the Dead makeup, and that there are face-painters who will do it for you.   However, there is growing unease with the way Day of the Dead is becoming popularized: commercialized, and colonized, by White people.

UPDATE, 9/19/2016: These were mentioned in the comments, but just in case you missed them, here is Debbie Reese’s review and Laura Jimenez’s review.


Yapha Mason said...

Thank you for this. My students have eagerly been anticipating it and I am looking forward to having this conversation with them.

Yuyi Morales said...

I love graphic novels, and for a long time I have been wanting to read some of the previous books by Telgemeier, but it wasn't until last July that I had an opportunity to do so. The book that came to my hands was Ghost. It was actually an advance copy that one of my Shendak fellows had picked up and brught to the Sendak farm where we were staying for a month. Ghosts, that is one of my favorite themes too, I read it avidly.
Telgemeier work is stunning, I love the emotional connections that she makes thought landscape, characters and story, I like the story from the beginning, but let me then speak about my reaction at finding out that he story was actually linked to the celebration of the Day of the Dead. I was puzzled. I didn't expected the story to end up referring to the celebration because the day of the dead is not about ghosts. To be knowledgable of this tradition you might not need to be Mexican, but certainly one might need to research a lot. I am not an expert, even though I grew up surrounded by the tradition, but I am an enthusiast researcher of this tradition. One of the things that is very true about day of the dead is that it is a changing tradition. It began as a monthly Aztec celebration that was forcibly transformed by the Spaniard conquistadores in order to subjugate the indigenous people of Mexico.
Put in a simple way there seem to be two ways to celebrate day of the dead; one in the indigenous and most traditional, ceremonial, very religious celebrations that is done among people in towns. These are elaborated receptions, mostly at home, sometimes in cemeteries as well, but they involves the whole community. The other kind of celebration is more urban, and it might include such a things as dressing up as calaveras, and processions where there might be music and dance. The celebrations in Mexico are varied but they all involve the core believe that our love ones dead will come back to visit us on November first, the children, and in November second the adults. Everybody gets ready to receive our visitors, and altars and offerings are prepared so that the departed people we love can come enjoy their visit. Food, drinks, music, even toy are displayed for them. The food might only be eaten by the living after the dead have eaten their essence.
My experience of the celebration in the USA, more specifically in California is that people from different cultures and not only Mexicans or Latinos want to embrace this celebration. Parades are made, people dress up and carry candles or pictures of famous people who have died, there is music, dance, and even parties were there are costume contest and sometimes people dress with their best Halloween attires. Once more the celebration transforms.
What I noticed in Ghosts is something that feels to me like a transformation of a tradition so that it can be embraced. Explanations about how ghost act or how they breath (such as in the scene where Cat's friends explain why people dress up or paint their faces as skeletons so that spirits don't feel awkward as is showing up to a party without clothes. Or Carlos's explanations of ghost cruise and pirate ships arriving to the dock for the day of the dead) are intertwined with the idea that during the day of the dead ( which in this book is wrongly celebrated on the night of Halloween) ghost come back to the celebration. But, during the day of the dead ghost don't come, the souls of people do. They might come as feathers carried by the wind, they might be hummingbirds or butterflies, or simply we might see them the way they were or not seem them at all.
I do believe Twlgemeir did a magnificent gob at telling a moving story. As a story about ghost I find it a great narrative. But I would suggest that this narrative do not gets taken as to learn about the day of the dead. Dia de Muertos is such a rich, powerful narrative, different from what Ghost presents, and worth learning much more about.

Anonymous said...

Yuyi, I learned a lot from reading your comment. Thank you so much.

Monica Edinger said...

My thanks too, Yuyi. Hopefully you don't mind that I pointed to your comment in a tweet as I think more need to be aware of this concern and you have done a beautiful job appreciating the book while also providing firsthand information about the celebration, its place in the book, and what that means for readers who are coming to it with limited understanding. Hopefully your comment will help more adults who are enthusiastically sharing the book with children will do so while also communicating what the actual celebration is(especially distinguishing it from Halloween). Thanks so much again.

Tenisha McCloud said...

What's so valuable about Yuyi's comment is that it indicates that there are so many variations of the celebration, and that the Day of the Dead is *continuing to transform*. Although I do appreciate the blog post that Faythe Arredondo wrote about her personal concerns about it, it is just as critical not to simply label a book as PROBLEMATIC because of a different experience. Arredondo's statement about the tamales is particularly troubling. If a person does not have the experience that the vast majority of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have had with tamales, does that make them less authentically part of that culture? I become very concerned when in the attempt to shield marginalized groups from harm, we in essence ask them to have monolithic, unchanging cultural mores. This can be just as potentially harmful as minor inaccuracies, particularly to 21st century children and teens who are experiencing considerable cultural change as they are currently growing up.

I agree that Telgemeier could have been less clumsy with the use of ghosts and the Day of the Dead, but I suspect that this book will have a far more positive impact on children wanting to learn more about the event than it will harm those who celebrate it. Let's not underestimate the curiosity of children and their desire to know more.

Yuyi Morales said...

I am having trouble publishing. I might be duplicating a comment here. Monica, indeed, Halloween and day of the dead are very different and we should distinguish them from each other. Although Day of the Dead has been changing, it is an ancient tradition with robust believes, practices, and structures that have hold this celebration strong for centuries. To entire communities Day of the Dead is the most planed celebration of the year. Some people save for the entire year to acquire the goods to offer in the altars. For many people the practices have not changed for generations, and when changes have occurred thay have happened within the community. From my imperfect opinion I would say that Day of the Dead can be learned, honored, and lived! And it should be embraced with much respect, as it can helps us consider a different understanding of life and death, before we even attempt to reinven it.

Pat said...

"What I noticed in Ghosts is something that feels to me like a transformation of a tradition so that it can be embraced. " I agree with Yuyi, that the transformation of Dia de Muertos is intended to be an embrace of another way of being/believing as well as a way to frame two sisters' search for words and meaning when both are aware of the closeness of death. Dia de Muertos would seem to be a meaningful cultural practice to frame characters' longing for life with our loved ones. The problem may be that Dia is being treated more like spectacle than ritual (see D.J. Older https://www.buzzfeed.com/danieljoseolder/fundamentals-of-writing-the-other?utm_term=.ynrjboOoV#.beDWXJoJ3)

Dia, as I understand it, and experienced it in Malanalco, MX several years ago, means the whole community turns their skilled handiwork, harvesting , baking, and altar designing toward loved ones who will walk the earth again as spirits for a short time. They are released from their part of the underworld for a time, to be sensate and feel the earth's pleasures again. But then the spirits return to the land of the dead. They are actually dead and do not continue to live or move around as ghosts.
So deep representation of Mayan spirituality and cosmology are lost here, because they are difficult to fit into western theology and beliefs about death. Some of the non-western beliefs may seem accurate- from a child's viewpoint, which is the leading point of view in the story. But Telgemeir has, nonetheless, created a narrative that relies on fundamental cultural beliefs and indigenous practices to frame this story. Such representations are almost always flawed in minor or serious ways because they involve appropriation as well as transformation. What if a character/adult in the story envisioned ( yay graphic novels!) Dia de Muertos as a cosmological and spiritual realm of beliefs and relationships, but found it difficult to explain with words alone and had to rely on something less than the depth they know. Such an image and contrast between what someone knows/lives and what they can convey would disrupt the assumption that something WAS adequately conveyed. The difficulty of conveying cultural knowledge and the worry and risk of misunderstanding and appropriation are worth including in a narrative.

So. Is a relatively superficial treatment of deep cultural knowledge, no matter how beautifully rendered, acceptable? Is it acceptable as a 'more complex than usual' rendering? Or are such representations better left alone? Or explained? Or always always paired with multiple other texts , through which a more extended review of representations can develop? Once the story is savored, it is possible to return to the cultural work going on and ask how it serves the story-- and who it serves in the story and in the publishing industry -- and what it asks of readers who know this cross-border world-making in ways that have yet to be rendered fully. On that note, I would recommend Barrio: Jose's Neighborhood by George Ancona. He represents Dia de Muertos as a cross-cultural transformation in a way that honors indigenous and modern practices intended to comfort the spirits who have lost so much -- including their homelands.

Sam Bloom said...

Thanks everyone for your comments, I am learning so much. (And Pat, thanks for the book recommendation - I'm familiar with some of George Ancona's books but not Barrio, so I'm going to order that one today at work.)

Tenisha, correct me if I'm misinterpreting your comments, but it seems like you've created a false equivalence by pairing an outsider child's curiosity to learn more about Day of the Dead with the offense people who celebrate the holiday may take due to the way it is portrayed in Ghosts. Why does one of these hypotheticals have to "win"?

Debbie Reese said...

I've just finished reading GHOSTS and am very uneasy with it.

I read it with this as my context:

Do you all recall that the Pope canonized Junipero Serra last year? It was national news.

What wasn't national news was the ways that Native peoples of California responded to the idea of him being canonized. In my networks, there was much discussion of Serra and the missions.

We must be aware of a fact that I think is completely missing from GHOSTS. The missions were established to turn Native peoples into Catholics. There was abuse. Death. Oppression. Of course, a lot of Native people died.

Tourists assume the crosses in the missions graveyards marked the actual graves of Native people who were willingly Christianized. That "willing" is a huge contested space! Anyway, I read that the Native people weren't buried like that. Instead, there were mass graves. The crosses in the missions are just decoration.

And so! When I read that part of the story, with the ghosts there, inside the mission... I was unnerved by all of that.

To me, GHOST not only misrepresents DIA, it feels very much like erasure of a brutal history. I absolutely cannot imagine how Native children in California will respond to GHOSTS.

Debbie Reese said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Debbie Reese said...


My review is up now:



andrea said...

I really appreciated Debbie Reese's analysis of the historical context for the book, and especially the mention of the different ways that children can be educated about difficult/unfair/violent histories.

Re: the Día de los muertos tie-in...these seems very marketing oriented to me.

Beverly Slapin said...

Thank you, Debbie. Yours appears to be the first and only voice about the "mission" content in this insidious book.

Eric Carpenter said...

Saw this review of Ghost today.

The review contains the following section on the dia issue:
"Ghosts is a sterling example of cultural appreciation, and Telgemeier treats these traditions with the utmost care and affection. The book’s climax occurs during Bahía De La Luna’s annual Día De Los Muertos celebration, and Telgemeier makes sure that her readers understand exactly what this holiday means to people with Mexican heritage and how it differs from Halloween. Catrina dresses as the Día De Los Muertos icon La Catrina when she goes trick-or-treating on Halloween, but she knows what her costume stands for and wears it to celebrate her culture. The detail and vitality of Telgemeier’s visuals during the town’s celebration showcase her dedication to capturing the joy and excitement shared by all the partygoers (both alive and dead), but she also includes a few moments of the somber reflection that is another major part of the holiday."

So that's how at least one non kidlit reviewer sees it.
I'll confess that when I first read that first line my brain read it as "sterling example of cultural appropriation" and I got excited. Oh well...

Beverly Slapin said...

Yes, Eric, your brain translated it correctly. GHOSTS is a "sterling example of cultural appropriation," and a sterling example of holocaust denial as well.

Debbie Reese said...

Last night, Laura Jimenez posted her review of GHOSTS:


Tenisha McCloud said...

The last line of Jimenez' review is awfully telling: "If you are teaching kids about Dia de los Muertos, please look elsewhere." I would hope that most teachers and educators would not be using a fictional graphic novel as a primary source to introduce children to it.

Come to think of it, only Latinx teachers and educators should be allowed to introduce children to Dia de los Muertos. #ownvoices

mimzy said...

Hang on there Tenisha, how do you define Latinos/as? ...is someone from Chile authorized to teach about the Mexican traditions for the Day of the Dead? Aren't you busily lumping individuals together as able to speak equally well as the voice of those people?

Sam Bloom said...

Everyone, I've added an update at the very end of the piece linking to Debbie's and Laura's reviews. The conversation continues...

Anonymous said...

Some background on Raina, she grew up in South San Francisco. I know its hard for people outside of California to imagine, but there are places in California that are very diverse and people appreciate that diversity. Here's some stats on South City: The racial makeup of South San Francisco is 23,760 (37.3%) White, 1,625 (2.6%) African American, 395 (0.6%) Native American, 23,293 (36.6%) Asian, 1,111 (1.7%) Pacific Islander, 9,598 (15.1%) from other races, and 3,850 (6.1%) from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 21,645 persons (34.0%). Among the Hispanic population, 13,194 (20.7%) are Mexican, 571 (0.9%) are Puerto Rican, 92 (0.1%) are Cuban, and 7,788 (12.2%) are other Hispanic or Latino.

Meaning Raina, grew up as a minority, probably had a lot of Latino friends, maybe even family. I am not saying that this excuses the miss steps but I don't think it's fair to assume her choices came from a bad place. Casting her entire book with Latinos was her choice, and a needed one. It is unfortunate that the setting was partly in the missions--it could have been set anywhere, an abandoned church and graveyard for instance. This is what happens when text books are not updated to accurately represent what really happened there. I highly doubt that this was a purposeful denial of the past. Ghosts reads as a love letter, to young Mexican girls who do not have adequate positive representation ya graphic novels. Its not perfect, but its a good start. I am grateful it exists, maybe future reprints could correct the errors or acknowledge the misinformation.

Jen said...

I'm curious, if only Latinx teachers and educators should be allowed to introduce children to Dia de los Muertos (and other cultural information) then how many children will miss out?

I certainly think it preferable for Latinx teachers and educators to be the ones teaching about culture, but in my K-12 experience I only had 2, and 1 was because I chose to take her class. Many of my classmates only had 1 Latino educator, and he wasn't Mexican.

[disclaimer. I am not Latina, but lived in Mexico and have spent significant time in other countries whose people speak Spanish. I've worked at jobs where 90% of the staff is from Mexico or Latin America. I've attended intimate family celebrations- quinceañeras, posadas, día de los muertos, etc. I used to teach Spanish, and while I used some primary source materials and school curriculum, I also spoke to my personal experience, and would hope I never misrepresented any of these wonderful traditions.]

Yuyi Morales said...

I don't interpret the intentions of Raina when creating Ghosts coming from a bad place, not at all (for instance, I very much imagine this book coming from a place of love and admiration). But I also don't see bad intentions from the people who is telling that there are important incorrect depictions and misinterpretation of a culture and of the practice and celebration of Day of the Dead in Ghosts. If a book like this is going to reach so many readers, let's us say that it should be known that many and essential parts of this books are not depicted in an authentic manner. Let's have this conversation, or else we are learning nothing but just to accept incorrect versions of who some of us and our culture and history are.

Yuyi Morales said...

One follow-up thought: Living in a diverse place, or having friends of family from another culture, or visiting a certain annual traditional celebration might not be enough to gather all the information one might need to draw conclusions and write a story about a certain cultural topic. I am actually imagining myself as one day I write about, let’s say, the Day of the Dead, and here comes an anthropologist, or a historian, or some wise abuelita, or even some very well informed child, to tell me that although my lived experience cannot never be incorrect, my interpretation or my knowledge of certain information might be wrong. I am thinking of how when I read Ghost, even after the second time, I didn’t paused at the scene when Carlo’s tells that the ghosts in the mission like to be talked to in Spanish; I did not until Debbie pointed at it and I realized of my omission to that important part of history. What I am concluding (and this is more a reflection I need for myself, I admit) is that we (or rather I) are going to have to be ready to listen more, and be willing to consider the knowledge from other people, from experts, from other experiences, because there is no shame in being called for not knowing something, but rather there is great dignity from learning form each other.

Yuyi Morales said...

And sorry, it is late at night and my typos jump out of me with enthusiasm.

Debbie Reese said...

I deeply appreciate Yuji's comments to this post, for so many reasons. So very many reasons!

Since reading/reviewing Telgemeier's GHOSTS, I read James Preller's THE COURAGE TEST (fiction; about Lewis and Clark). Yuji's last three comments helped me bring some observations together about the two books. Or, the body of children's literature, perhaps, but these two books embody some huge problems.

Both writers (Telgemeier and Preller) did some research. I think they both believe that they did the kind of research that I want writers to do before they write about people of groups that are not their own. Telgemeier visited a Day of the Dead event. Preller read a book of nine writers of their thoughts on Lewis and Clark). Being there (RT) or reading a book (JP) may not be enough. GHOSTS and THE COURAGE TEST are evidence that being there and reading a book were not enough for their creators to understand issues at play. Ultimately, Telgemeier and Preller erred. She, out of ignorance of US history. He, out of an inability to step beyond the master narrative of US history.

Here's one huge hole in what people generally think they know about Mexicans or Mexican Americans. There's an assumption that Mexican = Spanish, at least in the language Mexican/Mexican Americans speak. Some do, for sure, but their languages were not Spanish until their homelands were invaded. That area--including California, Arizona, New Mexico--became part of the US through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The peoples who were there and their resistance to invaders, are not taught well, if at all, in most schools. What we're seeing with this growing interest and embrace and enactment of Day of the Dead is a horrible appropriation and misuse of that resistance. Something with tremendous meaning and history is being commodified and celebrated as something cool. That's disgusting! And--Telgemeier's book is just making all of that disgustingness explode.

All of that is an echo of what we've been seeing all over the country for hundreds of years. By that, I mean people dressing up like Native peoples, and creating mascots to "honor" Native peoples... it is grotesque. It looks like a good thing to so many but it is not.

Above, Professore defends GHOSTS because Telgemeier, she says, cast all her characters as Latino. I disagree. They are White. The way they speak, the things they do look for White to me than Latino. Preller's book does that, too, when it asks us to celebrate Lewis and Clark. There's a passage in his book where the Native character says "When we celebrate Lewis and Clark, we also honor the native tribes who allowed them to pass." Does that sound Native to you? It does not, to me. Sure--we could find a Latino who would speak and do what Telgemeier's characters say and do. We could find a Native person who speaks and does what Preller's character does, and we'd use that person to justify what we see these two writers doing.

But why?

What does that ultimately do, to our understandings of history? Of Indigenous peoples? To children, today, of those Indigenous peoples? To children who aren't Indigenous? What does all of that do to all of us?

Tenisha McCloud said...

I'm finding it a little strange that no one at Reading While White has stepped in to disavow the statement that Debbie Reese has made above that the characters in GHOSTS are white. "The way they speak, the things they do look for [sic] White to me than Latino".

Catrina and Maya are absolutely mixed-race Latino and White, which is even stated in the Kirkus review of this book, and of course is also made clear in GHOSTS itself.

I'm all for this movement, including the great work being done here at RWW, to check our biases as readers and question the perspective and authority of writers and illustrators, but blatant misinformation based on personal opinion of the way people speak, things they do etc. should not simply be accepted, either. That sounds dangerously close to profiling.

Anonymous said...

Tenisha, I didn't read Debbie's comment as literally as you. I have had experiences in which I read male-authored characters who are supposed to be women/girls, and I think "this isn't a girl. This is a boy with a girl's name, or a man's version of womanhood." Sometimes, it's even a woman writing a man's version of womanhood because that's what we've been taught to do.

It's a subtle thing to get at, because I also don't want to profile or generalize about all women/girls; but I think some things, eg experiences with sexism, ring truer for me when they're written by women, who have been on the receiving end, than when they're written by men. This is not a 100%-of-the-time rule, just a pattern.

Hope that helps.

Jamalia Higgins said...

Allie, I appreciate your alternate read, but I admit I read the comment the same way that Tenisha read it. I think had Debbie said that "they read white" instead of "they are white", that would be far more appropriate, because we cannot change what Telgemeier created. They are mixed-race, period.

I hear what you're saying about men writing girls and women, and women writing men and boys. Once I was at a workshop with almost all women and a few men discussing many books, including Laurie Halse Anderson's TWISTED. Many of the women were praising how well Anderson wrote the male character, until someone stopped to think to ask the men. None of them thought that she got it right! We all were shocked, but I'll never forget that and it has long reminded me of how important #ownvoices can be!

Debbie Reese said...

Yes! They "read white" is better. Thanks.

Sam Bloom said...

To me, the whole point of this discussion about this particular book is that Telgemeier white-washed the story; she tried to bring Latino characters in and she tried to include Day of the Dead as a plot point, but she did it through her lens as a White person. When I read Debbie's comment I found myself nodding my head, because the more I thought about it, the sisters really did feel to me like White characters with darker skin. We can talk about her good intentions all until the cows come home, but the bottom line is that she got it wrong. I get that your argument is more about the semantics of what Debbie was saying, but I don't take issue with her comment because I think Telgemeier went for it (trying to diversify her story), swung for the fences and whiffed completely. (With apologies to Laura Jimenez for stealing her blog post title.)

Jamalia Higgins said...

Debra makes a really interesting point and one that I know I struggle with a lot when I'm reading C/YA books that feature a multicultural cast of characters. What is that "sweet spot" of authenticity in writing a character, the point between a character written with too many stereotypes and when the author seems too "colorblind" and you cannot tell what ethnicity a character might be unless the author declares it?

When I watch and enjoy a show like "Black-ish", which is created and acted by African-Americans, and is intentional in its depiction of a black family assimilating into suburbia, I know some of my friends decry that it's still not black enough! But I know those blacks, so they are real.

It occurs to me that in demanding certain depictions of ethnicity, are we really benefiting our kids? Or are we just further stereotyping? It's very tricky.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that it necessarily follows that when a reader identifies that a character of color reads White, it means they are asserting that there is a "right way" for an entire ethnic group to act. Rather, it means that the character's Whiteness is showing. I think too often we equate "White" with "raceless" rather than identify the traits and values that are common threads throughout White culture.