I’ve observed a trend at work lately. A parent will come in with their child and declare that the child only wants to read graphic novels. This is unsatisfactory to the parent. They would prefer they read ‘real books’ and ask me to help find ‘real books’. The child is almost always disengaged in the process and shows no interest in any of the books I pull for consideration. It’s as though the joy of reading has been taken away because they no longer have a say in what they read.
That’s not to say that I don’t sympathize with the parents. I do! There’s so much pressure to ensure that your child is reading not just at, but above grade level. I’ve been privy to these comparison-style conversations, though I usually encourage that almost all reading is good reading. And that’s how I truly feel; if a child has found a way to engage with a story or character in a way that is meaningful and enriching to them, it’s worth embracing as a parent.
With that in mind, today’s recommendation is Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier. Telgemeier is already well known to middle grade readers. She was tapped in the early 2000s to write and illustrate a graphic novel version of Ann M. Martin’s beloved The Babysitters Club franchise and her autobiographical Smile, released in 2010, has been a hit with readers ever since. Since Smile, Telgemeier has created several original novels, including Sisters, Drama and Guts.
Ghosts tells the story of Cat and Maya, sisters moving from Southern to Northern California. The family is relocating because the weather on the northern coast is better for Maya’s health. She has cystic fibrosis and the doctors have urged the family to move where the air is cooler and damper.
Older sister Cat is not a fan of the move; their new home of Bahia de la Luna is a sleepy coastal town with relentless winds off the water and a cold chill in the air. She misses her old home and the friends she left behind. She understands why they moved and she wants her sister to be healthy more than anything. She just wishes that she didn’t have to give up everything important to her in the process.
On their first day in their new town, Cat and Maya head out on an impromptu exploration. Maya is far more adventurous; Cat just tries to keep up with her. At one point, they become separated and Cat tracks Maya to an abandoned arcade. Cat wants to leave right away; the place is a total creep show! But Maya insists on investigating. It’s at this point they realize they’re not alone. A boy about Cat’s age speaks up to tell them that they’re early for the ghost tour.
Ghost tour?! Maya is elated but Cat is annoyed. She pulls her sister away from the arcade, trying to put as much distance as possible between them and the weird boy. She tells Maya that there’s no such thing as ghosts but in her heart, she’s not sure she believes it.
That evening, the family eats dinner with their new neighbors and wouldn’t you know it, the boy they met earlier lives next door! His name is Carlos. He and Maya hit it off right away but Cat spends the evening withdrawn and sullen. During dinner, Cat and Maya learn about Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, when it’s believed that the worlds of the living and deceased intersect for a short time. Their mother mentions that she hasn’t celebrated in years, since her mother passed.
Later that night, Cat is awakened by… well, a cat. A black one that has been lurking around the property since they arrived. Still shaken by the spooky events of the previous day, she goes downstairs and finds her mom and sister. The girls ask their mom why she never talks about her own mother. She shares that when her mom emigrated to the US from Mexico, she brought with her a lot of ideas and customs from the old country. She didn’t appreciate that her daughter wanted to do things in a more ‘modern’ way. Their mom admits that she resisted learning family recipes and she also refused to celebrate Dia de los Muertos. She figures that when her mother died, most of the family’s traditions went with her.
Carlos visits later and offers the girls a ghost tour. He takes them all over town; they visit the arcade, the docks, the cinema and the lighthouse. When Maya asks if they’re going to see ghosts on the tour, he and Cat argue about whether spirits really roam Bahia de la Luna. In an effort to prove his point, he tells them that he’ll take them to the mission, which has long since been abandoned.
Cat agrees, though she hopes Carlos is wrong about the ghosts. It’s quite a trek; it’s cold and windy. Cat falls behind and encounters a spirit almost as soon as she arrives at the mission. She can’t wait to tell Maya when she rounds a corner and finds her sister and Carlos surrounded by ghosts!
Maya is having a great time with the spirits but soon learns that one of the ways they’re able to communicate is by taking some of the breath of a living person. Well, that’s not a great situation for someone with cystic fibrosis. It’s not long before Maya is struggling to breathe! Cat scoops her up and runs away, while Carlos calls for an ambulance. Maya ends up in the hospital and when she finally comes home, she’s required to stay in bed most of the time. Cat blames Carlos and Cat tells him to stay away from her and Maya.
School starts and Cat meets a cool girl almost immediately. Seo Young moved to Bahia de la Luna two years ago and she takes Cat under her wing. Cat goes to the Harvest Festival with her new friends, where she learns about La Catrina, a famous Dia de los Muertos figure. The next day, Cat surprises everyone by dressing as her for Halloween. Maya is very upset because she’s unable to trick or treat due to her health. She’s also furious after learning that Cat has not told her new friends about her existence. Things are tense! And Cat’s still hasn’t spoken to Carlos in two months!
While trick or treating, Cat is panicked to learn that the offrenda (altar) that the family has erected for her abuela is not just a welcoming place for her spirit to land, it also opens the door to any ghost! Cat races home to find her family safe. Cat goes to bed but she soon hears knocking at the door. It’s Maya and she’s not happy! She asks her sister why she’s avoiding the Harvest Party. She would give anything to be there.
Cat admits that she’s scared to leave Maya. She doesn’t want anything to do with ghosts, especially after what happened to Maya. Most importantly, she doesn’t want to lose her sister. The two girls embrace and Maya again urges her to return to the party. She does, and she’s able to interact with the spirit of an abuela, who she first believes to be her grandmother. She isn’t, but it doesn’t matter. They share a moment together before Carlos approaches Cat.
He wants to introduce her to his uncle Jose, the spirit of an 8-year-old boy! Cat is surprised but she quickly warms to Jose’s childlike ways. She asks him if it was scary to die and he assures her that it isn’t; in many ways, it’s like before you’re born. You just are, suddenly. But he’s happy because his family always remembers him and he visits them every year on Dia de los Muertos. This is a comfort to Cat; she wishes Maya could have met Jose.
Jose wants to meet Maya, too. He grabs Cat’s hand and jumps off a cliff! Carlos runs to join them and suddenly, they’re all flying high above Bahia de la Luna. When they arrive at Cat’s home, she’s horrified to find Maya lying on the floor. Luckily, it turns out she’s fine; she just ate too much of Cat’s Halloween candy.
Maya and Jose share a meaningful conversation about death and the afterlife. It’s a bittersweet reminder that Maya will certainly die younger than she would without her diagnosis. But Maya is such a joyful person that her (living) spirit can’t be dampened. She shares her breathing tube with Jose and it sends him flying around the room, to the amazement of everyone.
After Carlos and Jose return to the party, the girls talk about how their grandmother never came to visit. But Maya spots something walking up the path. More trick or treaters? No, it’s the black cat, the same one that has been hanging around since they arrived. The girls let the cat in and it sprints to the kitchen. The home is filled with delicious smells and the table is piled high with a traditional Mexican feast. They realize that the cat was their abuela all along. The family is happily reunited, ready to face their new lives together.
Ghosts is an engaging and endearing read, with a heartfelt plot and likable characters that will appeal to middle grade readers. It can also be effectively read as a bedtime story, as you would read a chapter book. I urge you to allow your reader to explore graphic novels. You never know what it could lead to.