Ghosts is the story of sisters Maya and Catrina (Cat) as their family moves to the fictional Northern California town of Bahía de la Luna. The move is spurred not only by their father’s new job, but also because of Maya’s health. She has cystic fibrosis, and the salty air that blows in from the sea, it is thought, might benefit her. The sisters soon discover that the coastal city is host to a large population of ghosts, however, and the story is informed by their individual reactions to this revelation.
This was a bit of a bittersweet read for me as this was the first of Raina Telgemeier’s books that I didn’t just completely and utterly loved. Don’t get me wrong, I still liked it well enough. Like the rest of Telgemeier’s work, it’s a charmer of a read, full of lovely and relatable characters, and bursting at the seams with gorgeous artwork.
And it’s the art that I found most engaging. This is, I believe, Telgemeier’s strongest book in terms of artwork. Given that this story deals with the Day of the Dead this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, seeing as how Mexican culture is such a veritable wellspring of visual inspiration.
Setting is something in which Telgemeier particularly excels at, and Bahía de la Luna (based on the actual Northern California town of Half Moon Bay) is her most realized and beautiful one yet, full of detail and character and atmosphere. She is helped here with colors by Braden Lamb, who delivers with a palette that is somehow both morose and upbeat, which is, again, appropriate for a story dealing with the Day of the Dead.
I don’t celebrate Día de Muertos, so I can’t judge as to whether or not Telgemeier did an admirable job representing the holiday, although the back matter of the book mentions all the research material that Telgemeier went through while producing the book, and it seems fairly cohesive. It also talks about the research done into properly representing cystic fibrosis, something which I believe she did accurately and respectfully. This aspect of the story, however, informs the main issue I had with it, which is Maya’s characterization. Maya begins the story as a great character, quirky and optimistic and full of life. But she very quickly pushed to the sidelines of the story, straight into tropey territory, and spends the latter half of the book mostly as a source of motivation and inspiration for her sister. It’s a decision that rubbed me the wrong way, and left me thinking that maybe the story should have been hers to tell all along, with Cat as the supporting character. Middle grade and young adult novels are still full of differently abled characters whose stories are told by their able-bodied peers, and this is something that we should work harder to change.
That issue aside, I did love how all the elements of the story tied into the theme of breath: ghosts cannot talk unless they are given breath by a living person (usually in the form of a kiss, which is just charming); Maya’s cystic fibrosis makes it difficult for her to breathe, and she needs the aid of medical equipment; Cat herself is dealing with anxiety, which often manifests itself into her being often short of breath; and of course, the wind is forever gusting in from the sea, breathing life into the story.
I’ve completely fallen in love with Raina Telgemeier’s books, regardless of small gripes. She’s doing important work, and I will happily read anything and everything that she puts out.