Written and Drawn by Raina Telgemeier
Published by Graphix
Death is something that we all think about but it’s a really big and unknowable concept for kids. Believing in ghosts are one thing, a childish fantasy that sticks with us through our whole lives, but believing that all of those ghosts are a person who died is another thing. And then add into it that those people may be your grandparents, your parents or your siblings and the idea of our mortality becomes almost unbearable to adults let alone to children. But it’s these kinds of heady concepts that Raina Telgemeier is tackling in her newest book Ghosts. While it covers some of the same ground as Telgemeier's previous book (particularly the all-too-important concept of acceptance,) Telgemeier's portrayal of life and death in Ghosts takes those concepts in new directions for her
Catalina’s family has to move to a new Northern California town due to her younger sister’s worsening cystic fibrosis. Maya’s sickness is something that isn’t curable but the move to a different environment may make things better for her. So Cat’s story begins as a somewhat typical “kid forced to move away from her school and her friends” story, having to deal with all of the angst and resentment towards her family, while having to make new friends and even find a boyfriend in the new town. But this isn’t any normal Northern California town; it’s a town filled with ghosts. And while to an outsider, it may look like the town is haunted, Cat and Maya learn about the history of the ghosts and families. So while it takes some twists and turns, the story of the ghosts and Cat ends up containing some fairly typical themes for a YA story like this.
The titular ghosts of this book give it a sense of life even as you’re dreading the worst possible events as you’re reading it. Even if the move was intended to help Maya, she gets progressively worse and sicker in this new town. It feels like the move was too late to save the young girl and that feeling just grows with each panel and page. For all of the normal teenage drama that fills this book, Telgemeier’s reminders of our mortality create an uneasiness in this book. Between Maya’s illness and the almost ever-present ghosts, the acceptance that Telgemeier really seems to be exploring here is the acceptance of our own inescapable death.
But everything in this book is not doom and gloom. At the heart of the story is Cat and the resilience of her personality. There are lessons to be learned and new people to get to know in Ghosts. When you take out the supernatural elements of the book, Cat’s story is the story of a young girl navigating her way through life. She wants to be a good sister but she also wants to live her own life. While the fantasy adds flavor and depth to the book, Telgemeier keeps it about the characters, about Cat and Maya.
Telgemeier’s artwork wonderfully dances between the personal, the ghastly and the dramatic. For the first third of the book, she sets up the book as a horror story and the expressiveness of her characters play into this. Cat is a fantastic character who, due to the circumstances of her life, is primed to experience these new things as some of the scariest moments of her life. As she develops the story, her artwork moves from this horror-tinged flavoring to a celebration. These shifts in tone and flavor in Ghosts is told through the artwork, reflecting Cat’s own growth during the book.
And really, the story ends up being about something as simple as acceptance. Through the ghosts and these unearthly beings, Cat learns lessons about her family, her new friends and, most importantly, her sister. Maya is a wonderful spirit in this book and she’s all too mortal. In Cat’s life, we see this great tension between her living friends and the spirits of the dead on All Saint’s Day. Telgemeier never gets morose or narrowly focused on death even though the thought of death hangs over every page. Instead, all of this serves to remind us the lives we have here and now. By approaching the supernatural as the natural, Ghosts becomes a story about the joys of life and family by reminding us of the richness that exists in these normal experiences.