Review by Karl Verhoven
Given what a broad church comics is, it’s worth noting that at the time of Ghosts’ 2016 publication Raina Telgemeier was almost unique in transferring the concerns of young adult stories for girls to graphic novels. It’s all the more unusual considering her immensely successful track record. She has a natural facility for building flawed, but likeable characters to crisis points and thoroughly entertaining while doing so.
Ghosts is told from Cat’s viewpoint, the older of two children who’ve moved to Bahía de Luna in Northern California, a different climate more tolerable to her younger sister Maya, who’s afflicted with cystic fibrosis. Despite her condition, Maya is far more adventurous, and embraces the idea of a town where ghosts are attracted to the foggy conditions, and where the population celebrate this.
Under lesser talents Ghosts could have turned out as a superficial story with just the one thread, but Telgemeier is thorough and understanding. Maya’s condition isn’t just used to generate sympathy and danger, it’s explained and the treatments are shown. The family’s Mexican heritage isn’t a convenient box-ticking peg, but explored, along with the conflicts between immigrants and their children who grow up embracing different ideals and beliefs. Even the theme of Ghosts is given a resonance via Maya’s reasoning for her interest in ghosts. Her statement of “I want to know what happens when you die” has a heartbreaking quality.
All Telgemeier’s books promote tolerance, understanding and inclusiveness, but it’s unusual to have this applied to ghosts in a form of junior magic realism. This is with the ghosts very sparingly used over the first half of the book named after them. They’re of the Caspar variety rather than resentful spirits, and interestingly drawn as vague, without distinct features. Otherwise Telgemeier fleshes out the scenery wonderfully, more important than in earlier graphic novels because she’s showing a greater confidence in telling portions of her stories without words.
Eventually there’s a joyful spirit of boundless enthusiasm as readers are taught that what we fear is often unknown, but eventually nothing to fear at all, an accompanying motto of “just go with it” provided. It’s also okay to make mistakes as long as apologies are given when necessary. Everything builds smoothly to a touching celebration toward the end, topped by the elation of two subsequent sequences, both given life by Telgemeier’s expressive cartooning. Ghosts runs a predictable course, but in a very enjoyable way, so is another young adult triumph.
Further information on some portions of the book are explained at the end, Telgemeier disclosing that she based the location of Bahía de Luna on Half Moon Bay, where she grew up. More importantly there’s information about where to go for more information about cystic fibrosis, www.cff.org for North America and www.cysticfibrosis.org.uk.