Literary Ofrendas: Must-Read el Día de los Muertos Books for All Ages
As adults we know that el día de los muertos is an important and beautiful holiday rife with iconography, symbolism and significance – it certainly isn’t Halloween. But for many people (young and old alike), that distinction isn’t always clear. Because it’s celebrated on both sides of the border and is so closely associated with American Halloween, those lines can be blurred, and the meaning and spirituality lost.
Luckily, there are wonderful books that help explain to young people not only the history of el día de los muertos, but its meaning in modern culture. Older readers can dive deeper into what it means to honor lost loved ones and their places in our hearts. These are three books not to miss.
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Ages 4 and Up
Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras
By Duncan Tonatiuh
Abrams Books for Young Readers
We may see images of calaveras and Catrinas on everything from candies to piñatas to water bottles, but as familiar as we are with the icons, we might not be as familiar with their history. “They are the creation of José Guadalupe Posada, and this is his story.” Funny Bones, by award-winning author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh, tells the skeleton’s origin story. Although seemingly macabre and spooky, the calavera icons were first published in newspapers alongside short poems that were intended to be light-hearted and funny. And, their integration into the long-celebrated el día de los muertos further proved that a sacred holiday celebrating those we’ve lost doesn’t have to be devoid of laughter and happiness.
The simple prose and easy-to-understand history make this an ideal book for younger readers. Even those who can’t read it on their own will glean its larger lessons. In this book, Tonatiuh does what he does best – break down complex concepts and dense chapters of history and make it interesting and palatable for children. Through Posada’s story, readers are treated to a glimpse into the Mexican Revolution, the power of the press and his impact on Mexican and American culture.
Ages 8 and Up
By Raina Telgemeier
Graphix, an Imprint of Scholastic
Cat’s world is changing, big time. Not only is her family leaving their hometown for a tiny beach community leaving all her friends behind, but their new town is grey and cold and a little lonely. Cat’s younger sister, Maya, has cystic fibrosis and her family is moving for the benefit of her health. Although she certainly understands, Cat still struggles to accept and be happy with the new move. Then, a new bombshell – the town is haunted. As el día de los muertos nears, and the locals happily prepare to welcome back friendly ghosts, Cat grows more and more worried about bridging the divide between the living and the dead.
While author Telgemeier’s illustrations may seem child-friendly, the story’s approach to inevitability, death (especially that of a child) and the afterlife may be better suited to older children and teens. As a mother and adult reader, I devoured the book in one afternoon and was left thoroughly moved by the characters and the layers of storytelling. In one brief, graphic novel Telgemeier broaches not only life, death and the spirit world, but also about multicultural families reaching back into their history to learn more about their culture and how that works in the modern world.
Teen and Older
A Crown for Gumecindo
By Laurie Ann Guerrero
Aztlan Libre Press
This isn’t a typical el día de los muertos book. There are no dancing skeletons or altars to be seen. No, this is a book about actual death and the unbearable hole an absence leaves. It’s about indelible memories and inherited lessons. It’s about the way we see and feel loss, and how we are never fully mended – and it’s beautiful. This heroic crown sonnet – a series of poems focused on one theme and in which the last sentence of one poem is repeated as the first line of the next – takes the reader through the end of life and loss of Guerrero’s beloved grandfather. We are taken to his rural house, and see him through Guerrero’s memories.
Guerrero is one of my favorite Latina poet voices. In one tome, she lets readers in to the most intimate parts of her mind and heart. She doesn’t over expose, however. Instead she draws us near, inviting us to feel what she feels. In reading A Crown for Gumecindo, readers will likely think upon their own losses and grieve again, and in that way we remember, feel our loved ones with us and continue to heal. This isn’t a holiday book, but shows the meaning of the holiday in action