RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
All of us here at WEEKEND EDITION read a lot of books. There is one person on our staff, though, who reads way more books than anyone else. She is mildly obsessed with all things literary. And she's here to talk about one book in particular that has caught her eye, which is a big deal because seriously, she has about a hundred books on her desk right now.
Her name is Barrie Hardymon. She is our books editor. She is in the studio with me now.
BARRIE HARDYMON, BYLINE: Hi. Yes, I crawled out from underneath my pile of books to join you.
MARTIN: I'm glad you made it safely. You have brought in a graphic novel. What you got?
HARDYMON: It's called "Ghosts." It's by Raina Telgemeier, and I just love it. It's for about 8-year-olds to 12-years-old so that sort of middle-school age. It's about two sisters, Cat and Maya. Cat is the older sister, and Maya is the younger sister. And they have to move to northern California for Maya's health - she has cystic fibrosis. And they moved to this town called Bahia de la Luna. And there, they encounter ghosts. Partly they encounter it in the form of the Dia de los Muertos, which is the Day of the Dead...
HARDYMON: ...This Mexican-American celebration where people commune with ghosts and commune with the dead. And partly they are communing with death in their own way because they know that Maya is unlikely to get better. Both sisters cope with the idea of loss in different ways. I sat down with Raina Telgemeier, and this is how she described their relationship to loss to me.
RAINA TELGEMEIER: I think Cat has more in common with me. She's got the anxiety. She's got the fear. And she would rather avoid this uncomfortable topic than face it head on. But Maya, who, of course, is dealing with this in her own being, she wants to understand. She wants to get closer to it so that she doesn't have to be afraid. And then she ends up kind of dragging Cat along for that ride.
And, you know, Maya's just this unputdownable spirit. She's just lively, and she's got all the life in her. And I love her character so much. And she's not based on one specific person, but she's based on a lot of kids that I've met. And I had a cousin who passed away when she was 13 of cancer a few years ago, and she was the same kind of kid. And I think the character of Maya certainly takes a few cues from this person.
HARDYMON: So this is a book for young people - kids - but about serious stuff.
TELGEMEIER: Yeah. But when you see this book, you will see how much exuberance and how much life comes off the pages, which is one of the things about a graphic novel.
MARTIN: So tell me more about that because this is a graphic novel. This sounds like a compelling story in and of itself that would be worthwhile for young people to pick up.
MARTIN: What do the pictures do in a story like this?
HARDYMON: Here's the thing. When you get to a more complicated subject - when you are actually looking at the pictures of Maya, who has a breathing tube, who is exhibiting a difference - when children can see how middle schoolers are acting toward each other, they can see the expressions of hurt or of shame, I think that's really important, particularly in a story like this, which is about empathy. I actually asked Raina about this. And she told me that it was her experience with a really, really difficult thing when she was a middle schooler that helped her shape this story.
TELGEMEIER: I was 11 years old, and I was just racing some friends home one evening. And I tripped and fell and knocked out my two front permanent teeth and then had to get them put back in and then taken back out. And I had braces, and I had surgeries and headgear. I had false teeth for a little while. And middle school's not an easy time for anybody. And I was already sort of a shy kid and self-conscious. But it just made me want to retreat forever, but I didn't have that option. And I think it definitely gave me a lot more empathy for people that are going through experiences where they feel different.
HARDYMON: Telgemeier actually wrote this wonderful memoir. It's called "Smile." It's also a comic about her experience going through this, and it's - this is one I really would recommend for adults and children alike.
MARTIN: All right, I want to get back to the ghosts...
MARTIN: ...Because this is a book about young people grappling with the idea of loss. And they're in this place where the spirit world is very present. It's a graphic novel, so I need to know what the ghosts look like.
HARDYMON: Right. They're not scary.
MARTIN: They're like the Casper?
HARDYMON: No. But they're also - not that Caspar is not a good-looking ghost - but they're artistic. They're beautiful. They kind of - they're friendly and approachable in this way of looking kind of like balloon animals. But as the children - as Cat and Maya get to know them better, you can see their skeletons come through.
But I asked her about how she came up with that imagery going from the sort of the balloon to the skeleton.
TELGEMEIER: I've always had a fondness for skeletons. And it probably goes back to the old Disney cartoon, "The Skeleton Dance," the old Silly Symphonies from the 1930s where they're dancing and there's, like, a cute song that plays. And there's nothing scary about that. And I've - you know, I think most people probably have some sort of fear of death, including myself. And so the idea of making it not but something jovial has always appealed to me.
HARDYMON: And that whole idea of being approachable and lovely, it really suffuses the book. And it's a way to open up a conversation that could be hard about death and loss with even really young kids.
MARTIN: Well, I am so glad you came in to tell me about this book, and I hope you do it again. I hear you're going to, right?
HARDYMON: I am.
MARTIN: Barrie Hardymon, she's our books editor.
Thanks so much, Barrie. We'll see you next time.
HARDYMON: Thank you.