Hell hath no fury like a pre-teen’s angst, and Raina Telgemeier once again captures the range of relatable emotions and experiences that make her such a reader favorite in Ghosts.
Catrina (or Cat) is about to enter sixth grade, and her parents are moving to Bahia De Luna on account of her younger sister’s health. Maya was born with cystic fibrosis, a severe condition that affects breathing and digestion and for which there is no cure. Maya isn’t that much younger than Cat, but both Maya and Cat are at that age where being a few years apart makes them as close as Earth is to Neptune. Maya is still innocent enough to assume the world is filled with wonders; Cat is experienced enough to know that bad luck can lurk behind any corner. This recurring motif is established early on in the story as Cat admonishes her sister for running ahead to pet a black cat that crosses their path.
Soon after their move, Maya and Cat meet a new neighbor, Carlos, who offers to take them on a ghost tour of their new town. According to Carlos, ghosts enjoy the foggy, accommodating climate of Bahia De Luna. While Maya is thrilled by the idea of ghosts, Cat remains uncertain. Cat’s uncertainty is perfectly befitting to her age: as an almost sixth-grader, she is too young to be rational about the possibility of meeting a ghost, but too old for the haunted house-style of ghost entertainment.
And yes, the ghosts in this book are real. Like humans, they love attention, comfort, and company. They thrive on the opportunity to feel connected to others. And they love orange soda. Furthermore, how characters approach the ghosts parallels how we welcome the strange, the uncertain, and the unknown in our lives. As Cat learns to embrace the presence of ghosts, she is also learning to embrace her new friends, her deceased grandmother’s Mexican heritage, and the ultimate uncertainty of her sister’s illness.
For a book about death, this book is alive with the stench of adolescence, and Telegemeier is nearly unparalleled in capturing the small moments of those tween years we all cringe to remember. This includes Cat poking critically at her neighbor’s homemade flan to watch it wiggle while her sister devours it and Cat’s decision to comfort her bedridden sister by blasting music and getting in bed to spoon her.
Telgemeier has shown growth, in her capture of setting and mood, as an artist and writer in Ghosts. To convey a sense of enchantment and sadness in this Northern California town, she sticks with a color palette of mostly blues and purples, which lead to an attention to color in the most delightfully small places, like Cat’s purple Chuck Taylors, her purple barettes, and the purplish cast of her cosmetics against an open window in the middle of the night. Telgemeier also cuts back on dialogue to let the setting do some of its talking, whether the talking be the rush of dark waves at the coast or the overwhelming sensations at the town’s Day of the Dead celebration.
For Cat, growing up means more independence, more confidence, and more friendships. For Maya, growing up means her degenerative disease only becomes worse. Telgemeier marks Maya’s slow descent into her incurable disease by giving her an oxygen tube about halfway through the story that started off as temporary but begins to feel permanent towards the end. Maya’s movements also become more and more restricted: at the beginning of the story, she was the one racing ahead, and by the end, her mother is telling her she’s not in a good condition to be outside trick-or-treating.
Rather than amplify the tragedy here by allowing Cat to fully realize her sister’s deteriorating condition, Telgemeier decides to leave Cat—and, I believe, most younger readers—blissfully unaware of this subtle decline. By giving us a happy ending short of a cure, Telgemeier is declaring her primary allegiance to elementary readers who might otherwise find this story too upsetting. As a middle school teacher who often feels that middle school readers are overlooked, I can’t help but feel that the emotional heft of the story deserved a more emotionally weighty ending where the significance of Maya’s deterioration played a more central role in Cat’s coming of age. That said, I bet the popularity of this book will outlast one, if not two presidential election cycles among elementary and middle school students. Readers, you’re in for a treat.
by Raina Telgemeier
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12