With her latest graphic novel, Raina Telgemeier tackles one of her deepest and most uncomfortable subjects yet: death. Much like the rest of her work, she handles the material with a deft balance of humor, heart, and honesty. Over the last several years, Telgemeier has shot up to being one of the most prominent, celebrated, and even beloved cartoonists and, after reading “Ghosts”, it’s easy to see why her work connects so strongly with her readers.
Written by Raina Telgemeier
Illustrated by Raina Telgemeier and Braden Lamb
From Raina Telgemeier, the #1 New York Times-bestselling, multiple Eisner Award-winning author of Smile, Drama, and Sisters! Catrina and her family are moving to the coast of Northern California because her little sister, Maya, is sick. Cat isn’t happy about leaving her friends for Bahía de la Luna, but Maya has cystic fibrosis and will benefit from the cool, salty air that blows in from the sea. As the girls explore their new home, a neighbor lets them in on a secret: There are ghosts in Bahía de la Luna. Maya is determined to meet one, but Cat wants nothing to do with them. As the time of year when ghosts reunite with their loved ones approaches, Cat must figure out how to put aside her fears for her sister’s sake – and her own
Raina Telgemeier frequently sells out the house. Kids cram together to listen to her speak or give a reading. Her books have remained on legitimate bestselling charts for over four years. Graphix ordered a 500,000 copy print run of her latest book, “Ghosts.” I realize I’m getting somewhat meta-textual here, but I do think it’s important to point out that Telgemeier has truly connected and spoken to her audience. Her comics are massive and massively read, yet, for some reason, it’s only been recently that they’ve garnered any sort of attention within the comics-sphere.
Maybe it’s because these books are for kids. They all feature middle school-aged girl protagonists dealing with being adolescents. Until “Ghosts,” they’ve been relatively slice-of-life. They’re quiet books, but filled with honest and truthful emotions. And if these are the reasons they’re glossed over or called “safe”, then that’s a shame because Raina Telgemeier’s books have a lot to offer to readers of all ages. I don’t think “Ghosts” is her best book, but it’s definitely the one I liked the most, and the one that shows Telgemeier truly coming into her own as a cartoonist.
The story focuses on Cat. Her family is moving to this small California town because her sister suffers from cystic fibrosis and the air is apparently better. Cat is a nervous girl, constantly chastising herself for even thinking about doing something without her sister. She’s closed off and reserved and doesn’t exactly want to leave. Maya, on the other hand, is exuberant and full of life, bouncing around from room to room, from place to place until she collapses in a coughing fit. While exploring their new town, they run into a boy, Carlos. He runs a tour group and eventually convinces the girls to go along with him. It’s here they discover the town is populated with ghosts. Not long after that, Cat also begins to find a stronger relationship with her culture.
Ultimately, “Ghosts” deals with a girl who’s coming to terms with the impending death of her sister, finding solace in her heritage. I guess the best term for this book would be bittersweet, because while it by no means features a happy ending, it doesn’t fall into depression or bleakness. Telgemeier walks a fine line with the material, and she does so with grace, humor, and, most importantly, truth. This might be the biggest reason why Telgemeier’s storytelling connects so wildly. Like J. K. Rowling, the storybeats and situations are common for the genre, but it’s her voice and her control of character and relationship that allows the material to truly soar.
At 240 pages, “Ghosts” is Telgemeier’s longest work to date. She also utilizes the length better than any of her other books. Her panelling remains practical and laid back — though it looks like she uses a lot more rectilinear frames than previously. She throws in a couple double-page spreads, quietly building up to them so we the readers also have the same emotional reaction as the characters. Her character blocking and staging all lend to the most empathetic moments and she’s truly gotten down what to show versus what to let us imagine in the spaces between the gutters.Continued below
This book also feels a lot quieter than her previous work. It feels like Telgemeier has grown more confident with her cartooning and she actively steps back and lets the images speak for more than several sequences in the book. This is none more evident than in the Day of the Dead scene, which okay maybe takes some liberties with the actual holiday, but it does feel like an expression of that town’s cultures and traditions. But you’re swept up in the magic of it and you feel the same connection with Cat that she feels with her own history.
There’s a lot to identify with in “Ghosts”: a sick loved one, a new home, a family tradition. By giving her characters such specific interactions and situations, Raina Telgemeier has opened her book up for a more universal experience. She takes on a dark and grim subject matter and is not only frank about the realities of it but also makes it far more comprehensible and comforting. Her characters are relatable and empathetic, her cartooning’s assured and more confident. It’s easy to get wrapped up and invested in these worlds she’s creating.
Final Verdict: 9.0 – It’s easy to see why kids get so invested in Telgemeier’s work.