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Fleen Book Corner: Ghosts

I envy you; I really do. You get to do something that I never will be able to do again.

You get to read Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts for the first time; it releases in one week, and I have been reading and re-reading it (in an uncorrected proof, so there may be differences with the final edition) since SDCC. It’s a book that draws a clear contrast with Raina’s earlier work, and fundamentally differs from the usual stories we tell children (particularly the girls). Let’s talk (oh and needless to say, spoilers ahoy).

I know that I’ve said this before, but Ghosts is Raina’s masterwork. Smile resonated with literally millions of readers (sitting, as it does, on the New York Times Best Seller List this week for the 220th week), as oh so many people saw themselves in Raina’s story of dental misadventure, because who among us hasn’t hated going to the dentist. Drama and Sisters, ditto: middle school obsessions and friends and unfriends and refriends, and sibling squabbles and worries about parents — these are near-universal. But Ghosts takes things in a pair of different directions.

On the one hand, it’s Raina’s departure from the real world in storytelling, heading into a magical realism where there’s a town full of ghosts and it’s an adjustment for the outsiders. When new resident Cat is told by new friend Seo Young (herself a fairly recent transplant from SoCal) that she met the cutest boy last year, Cat’s all ears. Too bad he’s been dead for over a century … is the matter-of-fact followup, and Cat wonders if everybody in this place except her is crazy¹. I mean, yeah, she saw the ghosts, but that’s crazy, and there’s a logical explanation for it all, and … and … yeah.

She makes the adjustment, learns the rules of this new town, and isn’t necessarily happy about it, but one does what one must. The universal acceptance of the supernatural is just the first of the many Miyazaki-like touches in Ghosts, sitting somewhere between the forced-to-grow-up narrative of Spirited Away and the benevolent background force of nature from Totoro². It’s charming as all get out, watching Cat make the transition.

But on the other hand, there’s a departure from Raina’s previous storytelling that’s not to do with the magical nature of Ghosts, and I think it’s the more important thing. Raina’s previous protagonists (respectively: Raina, Callie, Raina again) all deal with things that happen to them, and find ways to work through the challenges they’re presented with. Cat has challenges, but much of her struggle is in coming to terms with the fact that she’s a bystander to the real story in her life.

Cat’s little sister, Maya, is going to die.

Not today, and probably not tomorrow, but the cystic fibrosis she was born with gives her (relatively) good days and bad days, and not long after coming to Bahía de la Luna (a move meant to help her health), the bad days come on strong. Cat doesn’t want to admit that she resents the move that upends her life; she loves Maya, but Maya’s got a much more realistic viewpoint on her illness than Cat does.

Cat knows that she’s going to lose Maya one day, knows that Maya will almost certainly die before their parents, knows that one day she’ll be without any family. She knows, but she buries this knowledge and refuses its reality. Maya knows this too, and is more frightened by the thought of Cat being alone than by the thought of dying herself.

Cat’s journey to a fuller sense of empathy, and her journey to acceptance is the real story of Ghosts; knowing that she won’t be entirely without Maya helps, but she knows that losing her sister is still going to hurt. The knowledge of that coming grief weighs on her until the ghosts teach her — don’t be afraid to love Maya now, and as long as you do, she’ll still be in some form.

It’ll be different, and the change won’t be easy, but don’t grieve until it’s time. Even the regrets we carry for not remembering family and traditions can be overcome when a little memory and a little determination is all the food that ghosts needs to come back for a party that lasts all night.

The kids that read Ghosts will know the story doesn’t end on the last page; they’ll be able to extrapolate from the happiness now to the sorrow of the future. But past the sadness is a bit of unmistakable optimism: It’s okay; we’re dead now, and it’s okay, and you who remember us, you can be okay, too. Live. Love. Dance. Be happy. Take all the pleasure you can from these things while you can, because life ends and it’s too short to be consumed by fear and anger and sadness.

It’s a surprisingly deep and melancholy message for a YA story told in a clear line cartoon style with lots of bright colors, wrapped up with some fantasy, some middle school angst³, and gentle lessons about difficult things. It’s a message that’s going to resonate in readers a long, long time and offer comfort decades from now.

It’s a message that I haven’t seen presented at the target audience, whether via comics or plain text. It’s beautiful, affecting, unique, subtly powerful, and the best thing that Raina Telgemeier’s ever done.

At least, until her next book. She has a habit of surprising me.

Ghosts is written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier, with colors by Braden Lamb that range from spookily subtle to eye-poppingly festive. It releases Tuesday, 13 September 2016 from Scholastic’s Graphix imprint. Fleen thanks Ms Telgemeier for the advanced review copy.

¹ Edit to add: I was reading Ghosts again and the perfect descriptor for Cat in that scene popped into my brain. Her expression reads My life is a sitcom, and they’re just about to juice the laugh track with that womp-womp sound.

² And, in the finest Miyazaki tradition, the heroine of the story gets to fly.

³ It’s a Raina Telgemeier story, of course there’s middle school angst.

Funny, I didn’t realize Ghosts wasn’t released yet. There’s been a copy sitting in my daughter’s room for the last week or two. I purchased it for her through her classroom’s scholastic book order. For what it’s worth, she and other daughter loved it. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet

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