Let’s dig into GHOSTS a bit, as promised in my last post. There is a lot to discuss here.
First, let’s start with the easy stuff. Did I like the book? Yes. I really liked the book. Raina Telgemeier writes relatable, lovable characters. The relationship between sisters Catrina and Maya feels so genuine that it is almost painful to read at times. Her audience is loyal and for good reason. Characters and plot are strong and are, I think, carried by the text as opposed to the images.
As an aside, I have a child with Cystic Fibrosis and read this book carefully for accuracy around that storyline. I have some minor quibbles with the CF plotline, but ultimately found it to be handled with care and authenticity.
Does it have what it takes, in text, to be considered a contender for the Newbery? That’s a difficult question. If we think about the phrase Jonathan mentioned in his last post, coined by Nina, “We consider only the text, but the text need not stand alone,” I think it could. I’m not convinced it would stand up against this year’s strong competition, but I wouldn’t throw it off the table.
HOWEVER, we have the issue of cultural appropriation and historical inaccuracies. This is, to me, what does throw it off the table.
There was a lot of discussion on this blog last year around THE HIRED GIRL, and in that case the focus was on a single line in the novel and whether that line was, indeed, a fatal flaw in an otherwise beloved book. Some didn’t see the line as a flaw at all, but instead saw it as appropriate in relation to the character. Some saw the flaw, but felt the merits of the book outweighed the offense. With GHOSTS we have a different issue all together. Our issue here is that the entire premise of the book is perhaps flawed, in terms of the depiction of Day of the Dead as well as in the presence and description of the ghosts haunting the mission.
When I first read this book, and you can see this in my review on Goodreads, I was waiting to hear from voices that represented the culture depicted in the novel before I made any judgement call on accuracy. I was concerned by the image of Telgemeier, a white woman, in Day of the Dead makeup in the notes section of the book, but was willing to reserve judgement.
The first thing I discovered was that some, with more knowledge than I have on the topic, did not feel that this depiction of Day of the Dead was respectful or accurate. While some of these arguments didn’t feel strong to me, I did find them concerning.
Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature brought my attention to another issue: the happy ghosts in the Mission and who those ghosts would really have been, given the devastating history of the missions and native people. Beverly Slapin at De Colores has a very thorough post describing her concerns with both the depiction of Day of the Dead and the erasure of native history.
I do believe that Raina Telgemeier wrote the book with the intention of respecting the culture and traditions she wrote about. I just don’t think she succeeded.
This is not a conversation I expect to go away anytime soon. The controversy around Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival has a much broader community of people talking and debating about this than I am used to seeing.
So, how does this fit in with the Newbery? I think the real committee, and we here, are tasked with reading all we can read concerning these topics and concerns, researching all we can research, and deciding how this all fits in, if we find the book rising to the top in other ways. What about this book is distinguished? Do these problems outweigh those positive qualities? How do these concerns mar the book’s ability to be seen as “marked by excellence in quality” and do they take away from how well the author manages “presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization.”
Most importantly, for me, how do these flaws affect GHOSTS’ “excellence of presentation for a child audience?”
I’m not sure this book would rise to the top for me regardless, but these issues knock it off the table without question.
What do you think?
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About Sharon McKellar
Sharon McKellar is the Supervising Librarian for Teen Services at the Oakland Public Library in California. She has served on the Rainbow List Committee, the Notable Children’s Recordings Committee, The Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Committee, and the 2015 Caldecott Committee. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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