Monday, November 21, 2016

MMGM- Ghosts and Controversy

It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday at Ramblings of a Wannabe Scribe and What Are You Reading? day at Teach Mentor Texts and Unleashing Readers. It's also Nonfiction Monday.

Reviewing diverse books properly is so difficult these days that I hesitate to say anything. Ever. I am a white, middle class woman. I haven't known the difficulties of marginalized cultures. I REALLY don't like making people angry. (Unlike some people.)

Raina Telgemeier is hugely popular. Having read her newest book, Ghosts, I could argue that she is not appropriating another culture, and she certainly seems well-meaning. 

The Day of the Dead celebration has trickled into mainstream culture in ways that are not accurate, and Telgemeier uses elements of this celebration as a way for her characters to deal with the life threatening illness affecting their family. There have also been assertions that her handling of Cystic Fibrosis is not entirely accurate.

Was it wrong of her to use these cultural references? I would like to be able to offer more sensitively portrayed multicultural characters to my students no matter who is writing them, but we must also contend with the idea of #ourownvoices.

My own half baked novel is set in a largely white suburban community. My main character's best friend is biracial, because I've had lots of students who are, and it seemed a realistic addition to my story, and a chance to give my students an opportunity to see themselves in a story. My nieces are biracial, but do I have any right to put this character in my story? Can I only write about white characters? 

Everything I do professionally is ultimately so that I can get books to my students so that they can see themselves and the world in the best possible light. Do I "want cookies" for doing this? No. But it would be nice not to be attacked. 

Here are some points of disagreement about Ghosts:

GhostsTelgemeier, Raina. Ghosts
September 13th 2016 by GRAPHIX
Library copy

Cat's family moves to a Northern Californian coastal town because the atmosphere is supposed to be better for her younger sister Maya's lungs. Maya has cystic fibrosis, and is fearful about her future. She is interested in a ghost tour given by Carlos, a neighbor boy Cat's age with whom Maya is fascinated. He takes the two on a tour around town, and Cat starts to feel friendly toward him. After Maya becomes ill from catching a chill trying to visit the ghosts, Cat is angry. The book lapses into fantasy when the children attend a Day or the Dead celebration and converse with ghosts, but this helps Maya feel better about the afterlife. 
Strengths: Let's have Telgemeier illustrate all of the textbooks. Then the students wouldn't stop reading them. She's that popular. 
Weaknesses: There are a lot of books in the world. It is too bad that this one is controversial.
What I really think: I bought a copy for my library but might not replace it if it falls apart. 


  1. I recently attended a "Death Faire" in my town that was supposed to be like a Day of the Dead celebration but it raised a lot of questions for me re cultural appropriation. I think some people in this country just like the colorful alters.That said, I think it is fine for you to write about biracial characters. We would never have The Snowy Day by Ezra Keats if people only wrote about people who looked like/and had the same life experience they did.

  2. I love that you're trying to write your own novel based off of reality. I don't think there's ever been a great story written that doesn't have its roots in truth. Maybe you could try subtly incorporating the concept of biracialism by evening out the number of biracial students in the story, rather than isolating one child?

  3. There was a heated, though respectful, debate on this topic at our regional SCBWI conference. No resolution but being accurate with facts whether it be fiction or non-fiction seemed to be one point of agreement.

  4. I love your first paragraph. It highlights the diversity issue no one wants to talk about. There is not room here to discuss this issue, but I ache to say, the scathing criticisms some writers endure only increases the divide. It forces people to take sides, become "us and them." "Biracial" kids may suffer the most. Ask the biracial families in my social circles. I had hoped that as our society in particular becomes an ever increasing melting pot, we could forego the race label and focus instead on heritage. I should have known better.

    Much of the diversity debate is based on flawed thinking. To say that one culture is totally unified on how they should be represented is arrogant and narrow. Critics are representatives, but they do not speak for an entire group of people. Even to say that they speak for the majority can be a dangerous attitude. Does that mean the opinions of the minority (within the minority, as it were) are invalid?

    Regarding the book itself, I have no Mexican ancestors, but my Mexican and Mexican-American friends have no problem with this book. Also, I find it counter-productive that many of the criticisms of this book in particular are based on the idea that a non-white cultural tradition is off-limits in fantasy. Is it disrespectful to tell a flood story? A Jack tale? A Cinderella variant? A story which references God in any way? Are Germans or French or Jews or Christians being defamed? Are their cultures being stripped by a modern retelling or a twisted adaptation? Modern diversity proponents would have to say yes, but they do not. This is the highest form of bigotry, using the cloak of diversity to advance one culture by marginalizing another. They do the thing they say they seek to abolish.

    Sorry, I'll stop now.

    Thanks for having the courage to review this book. I don't celebrate Dia De Los Muertos. The whole idea of ghosts is counter to my religious convictions. My sister does not have cystic fibrosis. But I do celebrate spiritual holidays. I do believe in certain supernatural occurrences. My family is affected by life-changing, debilitating genetic disease. That's the POV I use to come at this book. And that's why I am not offended by Telgemeier's sincere vision.

  5. Thank you for sharing the controversy about Ghosts. I am looking forward to reading it myself to see what I think.

  6. Ha! I love your quip about what you really think. It is sad that people get so worked up about this stuff. That said, sometimes controversy brings publicity. Would you have looked twice at the book without all the press?

  7. After reading about all the controversy over this book, I asked several students who had read it to give me some feedback. I wish I had taped the conversation. One Mexican-American student said (not directly quoting here): The whole Day of the Dead stuff is different in every part of Mexico. My dad and mom grew up in the same state but two different villages and have totally different ideas about what we should do! My mom's family hung out in the cemetery, my dad's family just had a big party. Then she pointed at her friend and said, And she's half Mexican and half Puerto Rican, and she never even heard of Day of the Dead! All the students of Mexican descent told me similar stories, of how different the celebrations were depending on what part of Mexico you came from. Many of them said their families did nothing special, others traveled north a bit to a large Day of the Dead celebration. So, I struggled with this one, too, but I'm deferring to my students and their #ownvoices.

    I do understand the concerns of some readers on how CF was portrayed,but again, everyone has a different experience with illness. Back in the 1970s, my mother was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. She spent 4 years in and out of the hospital and died about 6 years after her diagnosis. Another woman we know, diagnosed at the same time, lived symptom-free well into her late 80s. And if we just want to look at fiction, we can all reflect on The Fault in Our Stars, right?

    I would be sure to share Funny Bones by Duncan Tonatiuh with any student who read Ghosts, especially in middle school. Our Spanish teacher shared the story of Lupe Posada with me, and this book is a great introduction to his calaveras and their use as satirical and political statements. (And wouldn't that make an interesting research project for a student who loves graphic novels!)

    And by the way, I'd buy you a DOZEN cookies for all your reviews! You help me spend my small book budget.


  8. I too struggle with reviewing diverse books. I am also a straight, middle class, white woman. I'm lucky to have roots in a Native American group, but look more like my German father's family. I do think that writers who are going to write about cultural practices outside their own experiences have a responsibility to ensure it is respectful and realistic. I'm really sorry about this book.

  9. I think there is a difference between writing an authentic character who is different than you and appropriating a culture or cultural stereotypes to serve a plot purpose. I agree with reviewers that Raina crossed that line in Ghosts, but I still have it in my library. It's led to some interesting discussions.

  10. I personally think that the author's lack of understanding about how Native Americans were treated by Catholics in the missions is due to this being suppressed information that is not widely known but I think this graphic novel is a great starting place to point out this deficiency and bring this history forth as it should be. Therefore, instead of saying this book should not be read, I say, read this book and read the links and discuss why we, the reading public, don't know about these things. And why, perhaps, the author didn't either. And how to bring these narratives out into more accurate textbooks and other resources so that it becomes mainstream information.

  11. Thanks for including the links to various conversations about the book. Seems to me that listening is one of the most important things we can all do. I've been struggling with the same questions myself about my writing. Daniel Jose Older wrote a wonderful piece about Writing the Other that everyone should read (with bonus gorgeous artwork):

    I particularly like #10: "The fact that you will mess it up is not a reason not to do it."

  12. I didn't do a IMWAYR post this week but your post intrigued me and I admire your bravery. Diverse books are important. I am really thankful for everyone's conversations about this book. I also definitely agree with the points about listening and still having the book in your library. It's a great discussion starter and sometimes we need to be educated about other viewpoints and facts that we may not be aware of. Great post and love your blog!

  13. We really appreciate your post. It is so important that we talk together about books - Which parts of the book resonate with us and with our students? Which parts of the book may be inaccurate? Whose point of view is missing from the text? The more we help students think beyond plot, the more we help them to develop critical literacy skills.

  14. I was checking this article and this showed something bad impact about Cartoon Characters but in the end it gave me some information too