Raina Telgemeier is back with her fourth original graphic novel, and we’re all the richer for it. This week marks the release of Ghosts, and in it she explores the nature of family and friendship against a backdrop of self-discovery and the Mexican Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) holiday.
It’s easy to forget that Raina’s first original book, Smile, came out as recently as 2010. That’s because the effect she’s had makes it hard to remember what graphic novels were like beforehand. Really, it’s hard to recall what the publishing industry in general was like.
Before Raina, graphic novels were largely thought to be a highly niche market dominated by superheroes. Aside from a few exceptions, it was not a medium where deep, meaningful, original stories were told…or at least that’s what editors and publishers thought. The general consensus was that graphic novels were an exclusive “boys only” club. The prevailing belief was that young girls weren’t interested in reading them, women weren’t interested in making them, and they certainly weren’t a medium that could appropriately represent diverse voices.
Then Raina proved them all wrong. Smile was a runaway success and, as of this writing, has been on The New York Times best-seller list for 221 consecutive weeks. Two hundred and twenty-one. That’s over four years.
Her follow-up books Drama and Sisters were also resounding successes straight out of the gate. And in the process of putting out some of the most beloved graphic novels of the past 5-6 years, Raina has not only solidified her role as one of the most talented storytellers working in the medium today; she’s also kicked down doors and expanded the possible horizon for all artists – regardless of gender or background.
Ghosts tells the story of Catrina and her family just after they’ve moved to the coastal California town of Bahía de la Luna. Cat’s little sister, Maya, has cystic fibrosis, and the family has moved so she can hopefully benefit from the town’s cool seaside climate.
Cat’s having a difficult time with the changes, and when a friend tells her that the town is full of ghosts, she’s less than thrilled. Maya, however, is a veritable ball of energy and enthusiasm, and her imagination is set loose by this information. She’s determined to meet one. And lucky for her, the nearby mission is awash with ghosts.
Catrina is far more concerned about her sister’s health…and of finding where she belongs. The book covers a lot of ground, and much of it might be unfamiliar for most young readers. Catrina and Maya live in a family with a mixed cultural heritage, the story ultimately centers around the Día de los Muertos holiday and many of the traditions associated with it, Maya’s cystic fibrosis and poor health is a major focus of the book (and Cat’s anxieties), and there are ghosts. Which means there’s some frank talk about death and acceptance.
Catrina is dealing with who she is terms of her family, her sister, her culture, and herself. And of who she’s becoming. It’s a lot to take in. The book is overflowing with genuine emotion, and I found myself alternating between laughter and heartache far more than I was prepared for.
Is Ghosts Raina’s best work? That’s up to each reader to decide since each book is so different. Is Ghosts the best graphic novel of 2016? Look, I’m just one guy, but I think we’re going to see it clean up at the Eisners next year.
(Disclosure: Scholastic provided GeekDad with an advance review copy of this book. All opinions remain my own.)