Saturday, September 17, 2016

Not recommended: GHOSTS by Raina Telgemeier

Eds. Note: At bottom of this post, there are links to additional reviews. 

On Monday, September 19th, Raina Telgemeier will launch her new book, Ghosts, in Minneapolis. She's a much acclaimed writer with several best selling books. 

Anytime I see a book that has something to do with ghosts, I wonder if the author is going to be contributing to the too-high-pile of problematic books with characters who are haunted or inspired by the ghost of a Native character. One example (there are many) is Susan Cooper's Ghost Hawk. 

I think Telgemeier's Ghosts is one of those problematic books, but I don't think that Telgemeier is aware that she's doing that same thing. The story she tells, and the reviews of her story, demonstrate (yet again) an ignorance of history. I imagine some people defending the book by saying its audience isn't old enough for the complexity of that history, but that holds true only for a selected (possibly white) audience. Native children, and children of color, know far more history than one might expect, because history informs and shapes our daily lives, today. History, of course, informs the daily lives of White children, too, but in a way that means they're ignorant--and are taught ignorance--until they're deemed "ready" for that dark history. 

So, let's get started. Here's the synopsis for Telgemeier's Ghosts:
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.

The ghosts in Bahía de la Luna (that is a fictional town) are primarily the ones they see at a mission. This starts on page 73, when Carlos (the neighbor boy who tells them about ghosts) takes them to the mission, "where the ghosts' world and ours mostly closely overlap." The three get separated on the way up there. Cat arrives, alone. The mission itself is run down. 

Nobody is there, which is interesting in itself because those missions are a key piece of California's tourism industry. There may be some that are like the one in Ghosts, but I kind of doubt it. After wandering around a bit, Cat sees a ghost. She follows it and finds Maya and Carlos in the courtyard:

Carlos opens a bottle of orange soda, hands it to Maya, and then one of the ghosts goes right up to her, smiling:

At first she's taken aback, but in the next panels, we see the ghost hug her, so she decides it is a friendly ghost. She says hi, but Carlos tells her that most of the people buried there were from Mexico, so, they like it when people speak Spanish to them. So, Maya calls out "Hola!"

That visit to the mission is the point where--for me--the story really starts to unravel.

The missions were there (obviously) for a specific reason: to turn Native peoples into Catholics and to claim that land for Spain. Some see missions and missionary work as a good, but if you pause for a minute and think about what they and that work is designed to do, and if you do a bit of reading, you'll learn that it was far from the benevolent character with which it is regarded by most of society.

At the missions, life for Native people was brutal. There was rape. Enslavement. Whippings. Confinements. And of course, death. Analyses of the bones at the mission burial sites that compare them with bones found elsewhere show that the bones of those who died at the missions were stunted and smaller than the others.

Some of Telgemeier's ghosts might have spoken Spanish, but it is far more likely that their first language was an Indigenous one. Did they joyfully want to be spoken to in Spanish, the language of their oppressors? Given the history, I think it is unlikely that these ghosts would be smiling as Telgemeier shows:

And I wonder, too, about those cemeteries. There are a lot of accounts that report that Native peoples were buried in mass, unmarked graves, elsewhere.

One might defend Telgemeier by saying that her ghosts are of the Spanish priests and maybe soldiers, and, maybe Native peoples who had been successfully Christianized, but the overwhelming evidence of the history is what I think should hold sway when we look at the missions, and when we give children stories about them.

I strongly urge people to read Deborah Mirandah's Bad Indians. Look, especially, at her chapter, The End of the World: Missionization. There, she presents an accurate version of what children across California are asked to do: a mission study. But Deborah's doesn't soft pedal or whitewash what happened. She describes items, like a cudgel (p. 15):
Wooden club used to strike quickly; alcaldes, soldiers, and sometimes padres carried these with them for spontaneous corrections throughout their day. The alcaldes used these during services in church to remind the Indians to be quiet, to pay attention, and to stay awake. A longer cudgel or cane was useful during Mass because the alcalde could reach far into a crowd without having to move very much.
Look, too, at A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California's Indians by the Spanish Missions by Elias Castillo. He writes about treatment of Native people who tried to escape the missions. When caught, the friars at Mission San Francisco burned crosses into the faces of men, women, and children.

If you can't get Bad Indians or A Cross of Thorns right away, then read The Lesser-Told Story of the California Missions, which includes quotes from their books.

Above, I wrote that this brutal history is usually kept away from children--but I also noted that the children it is kept from is not Native children, or children of color. Indeed, Castillo's book includes a foreword, written by Valentin Lopez, Chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of the Costanoan/Ohlone Indians. He writes:
Until now, the true and full history of the California missions has never been told. When visitors tour the missions, they are usually presented with stories and images of peaceful, loving priests and soldiers who treated the Indians as adored children. 
These stories belie the truth of the missions, where Native Americans suffered under harsh and brutal conditions. As a young boy, I listened to stories from my elders about the cruelty of the missions. There were tales of how native women were captured— with their thumbs tied together with leather straps to form human chains— and marched forcibly from their tribal lands to the missions. If the Indians did not cooperate, the soldiers, at times, killed them. In one incident, more than two hundred women and children of the Orestimba tribe (living near what is now the town of Newman) were being taken to Mission San Juan Bautista. When, after passing the summit at the Orestimba Narrows, these women refused to go any farther, the Spanish commander ordered the women and children killed with sabers and their remains scattered. 
The oral traditions of our tribal band, the Amah Mutsun, taught us stories of how certain Spaniards would appear when the Indians were first brought into the missions so they could get their pick of the young girls and boys for their perverted appetites, always with the tacit approval of the priests.
I know most people don't want to read about such things, but for certain, we cannot go forward presenting the missions as Telgemeier does. Can you imagine what Mr. Lopez's response to Ghosts? Can you imagine how teachers will use this book in the classrooms? On a superficial level, it looks to be the perfect "diverse" book. It isn't. Head over to Reading While White's post about Ghosts and see the conversation and links there. In particular see what Yuji Morales and Patricia Encisco submitted in their comments about the book.

Published in 2016 by Scholastic, I do not recommend Raina Telgemeier's Ghosts. 

Eds. Note: AICL will add links to additional reviews about concerns with the book.


AnnPoet said...
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AnnPoet said...
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Debraj said...

Thank you for an in-depth critique of this book. As always, I learned valuable information by reading through the critique and the comments.

mclicious said...

Your post and RWW's together make for good reading, and I hope Disability in Kidlit takes a look at it as well. I like the idea of a kid with CF seeing themselves in a graphic novel, especially one that makes an intersectional nonwhite disabled character, because it's very rare to see that. And I've been hearing under the table criticisms for awhile as reviews have been churning. I love Telgemeier's work and really wanted to read this, and it's a shame she couldn't just make it a fun ghost story rather than throw a bunch of half-baked ideas from Day of the Dead in there.

Ellen Fleischer said...

I recall a trip I took under the auspices of my university's Russian department. It was "in the footsteps of Peter the Great," which meant travel to several Russian cities, as well as a visit to Talinn, Estonia. At the time, I'd been learning Russian for about a year and a half and most of us on the tour had some knowledge of the language, as well. None of us spoke Estonian. This was 1991, and the Baltic republics had been independent of the USSR for about a year. What I remember is our tour guide telling us that when in Estonia, not to start off speaking in Russian. She explained that although most people understood it, to them it was the language of their oppressors. They'd been forced to learn it, but most didn't want to speak it now that they were independent.

Our guide's advice? "Start with English and French. If you speak other languages besides those, try them too. Chances are they won't understand you, BUT if you then switch to Russian, they'll probably be a lot more willing to converse with you, because at that point, they'll understand that you're trying to find a common language for communication and that you aren't lumping them in with Russia/assuming that Russian is their language."

Would I be correct in thinking that the book would be less problematic if, say, Telgemeier had had Carlos giving a quick overview of the missions and then explained that the ghosts probably did know some Spanish, they might not want to speak it unless Maya explained that it was the only way they could communicate?

Pamela said...

Faythe Arredondo also wrote for us on TSU here about Ghosts.

Doggiesyass said...

But the book ghosts is sop posed to educate children about the missions and the day of the dead

Anonymous said...

I love that awards committees seem to know the difference between non-fiction and fiction. Anyone seeking "truth" in a fiction book is on the same mission as a person seeking nourishment from the meat in a hot dog at the ballpark. It is up to teachers, parents, and librarians to teach the difference, as so many of us were taught when we were younger.

Indigo's Bookshelf: Voices of Native Youth said...

I almost never delete comments. I did in this thread because I quoted my sister without her permission. Lesson learned. I had raised issues about the portrayal of Cystic fibrosis in GHOSTS. I have seen a few remarks from adults about whether it is accurately portrayed. The general verdict is: not exactly, but that's okay. Readers want to give Telgemeier the benefit of the doubt, to give her points for trying. I am more concerned about how a child reader with CF would feel about the character of Maya. Would they be proud to be represented that way? To me, the book enforces the all too common, and very painful stereotype that a disabled child is a burden on her family. My friends told me, "No, that's how Telgemeier always portrays sibling relationships, with conflict." So I finally read SMILE and SISTERS (during quiet moments at the children's reference desk), and I don't believe that argument quite holds up. Reading SISTERS, Debbie, I also came across a panel referring to spirit animals. That stopped me in my tracks. I scanned it and will send it to you.

Unknown said...

This is complete bull, it's literally a children's book of not a history lesson. Stop over thinking it and grow some thicker skin.

Debbie Reese said...

Unknown at 1:14 AM:

Children learn from the books they read. Telgemeier messed up.

Unknown said...

This is ridiculous. It’s a children’s book. If this is offensive, then there are another 100 books that are offensive.

Debbie Reese said...

Yes, Jacqueline, there are 100s of books that are inaccurate.

Jean Mendoza said...

Jacqueline, you may be new to AICL. If you stick around and read some of the past reviews, you'll probably see that it's not so much about whether the content or intent of a book is "offensive," as it is about several other complex matters. Does the book -- even a fiction book -- reflect or provide accurate information/images about Native people and their lives? Or is the information incomplete or just plain wrong, leaving readers with mistaken ideas about Native people? Do Native kids who read it see themselves and their families and communities presented realistically, in ways that feel "true" to them? Or will they read it and feel embarrassed, ashamed, frustrated, or angry because of the misrepresentation?

Children's books matter a lot. For many non-Native children, books provide the first representations of Native people they will see. The mistakes stay with them, partly because schooling tends to do such a poor job of communicating truths about Native lives, past or present. The mistakes often get solidified into bias and even beliefs about racial superiority/inferiority

Everyone is harmed by misrepresentions of Native people.

Anonymous said...

This book is not an entirely non fiction book. It's supposed to teach good lessons and morals. "Imagine how teachers are using this book in-" NO. This book is about culture, and embracing it, and also focusing on how important family and diversity is. I don't know how I stumbled across this article, but I am sure you are misrepresenting how this book is to be used .
I am disgusted.