by Raina Telgemeier
“No, girls. November first. It’s a day to welcome back the spirits of the loved ones we’ve lost. I haven’t celebrated in years.”
Cat’s family has just moved to Bahía de la Luna, leaving behind their life in southern California. Cat is sad to be separated from her friends, but the coastal weather will be better for her sister’s health. Maya has cystic fibrosis, and the cool seaside air may help her struggling lungs. Bahía de la Luna turns out to be haunted, and the residents of the town take living alongside ghosts for granted. This terrifies Cat, but Maya is determined to meet a ghost for herself. Unfortunately for Cat, their new neighbour Carlos knows all the best spots as the local tour guide, including the abandoned mission. In order to help her sister, Cat will have to face up to her own fears.
Back in April, I received a preview of the first twenty-three pages of Ghosts at Emerald City Comic Con. I was excited by the potential of the story, because it features sibling relationships—one of Raina Telgemeier’s signature strengths—while venturing into fantasy where Telgemeier is generally known for her realistic contemporary stories. But by summer and early fall, I was seeing a series of blog posts that raised concerns about certain details of the story. I cancelled my pre-order, and put the book on hold at the library instead. Due to Telgemeier’s popularity, I only recently topped the holds queue and finally got to read Ghosts in full.
The strongest aspect of Ghosts is undoubtedly the sibling relationship between Cat and Maya. Cat’s parents have given her extra responsibility as the older sister, because in addition to keeping an eye on Maya, she must also be hyper-aware of the consequences of any choice on her sister’s health. Cat struggles with this role, and when Maya is too sick to start school in Bahía de la Luna, she doesn’t tell her new friends she even has a sister. Like the other members of her family, Cat is afraid of what will happen to Maya, because there is no cure for cystic fibrosis. And Maya is keenly aware of her own mortality, which plays into her determination to meet a real ghost who can help her understand what is waiting for her.
As I mentioned above, other readers have highlighted a couple of aspects of Ghosts that are problematic. Debbie Reese has called out the fact that Ghosts glosses over the history of California’s Catholic missions, which existed primarily to force the conversion of the Indigenous population. The abandoned mission plays a crucial role in the story as the most haunted place in the fictional Northern Californian town of Bahía de la Luna. Others, such as Faythe Arredondo and Laura Jiminez have pointed out additional problems with Telgemeier’s depiction of Dia de los Muertos.
For my part, I noticed that on page 43 and 44, Cat’s mother corrects her when she equates Dia and Halloween. But this one line of dialogue is pretty thoroughly undermined by the fact that later in the story Cat dresses up as La Catrina for Halloween. This image (page 158) is much more likely to stick with readers than a single line of dialogue from early in the book. Telgemeier also includes a Sketchbook page in the back of the book, showing her early ideas for Ghosts as far back as 2008. Maybe it is the fact that these sketches aren’t in colour, but all of the characters look white, causing me to wonder if the diversity of Ghosts may have been grafted on later.
Ghosts will no doubt remain popular due to Telgemeier’s wide readership, and I did enjoy the sibling story, as well as the atmosphere created by Braden Lamb’s wonderful colours. But I hope readers will be aware of the issues that have been raised regarding this story, and also seek out own voices perspectives.
Also by Raina Telgemeier: