Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier and Sheets by Brenna Thummler

This entry is part 10 of 22 in the series 2023 Reads

Like all the posts in my 2023 reads list, this comes at a lag, meaning I read this a while ago. 

I recently read a couple of comics aimed at younger readers. Basically, I stumbled onto them at the library while waiting for my son to pick out some comics, and figured I’d give them a shot, as a contrast to the more challenging reading I’ve got on the go at the moment. They’re interesting in different ways. 

Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts is about a pair of sisters who move to a town with a notable ghost population. The story is told from the older sister’s point of view, as she struggles externally with life in a new, bewildering place, and also struggles internally with her younger sister’s cystic fobrosis, with all the complications that presents to her life. They make friends, with human residents and with others, and the internal and external struggles ramp up as things change, finally intersecting on Día de los Muertos. I found the story satisfying, the art style simple but appealing, and the characters pleasant to spend time with. 

Brenna Thrummler’s Sheets is a different kind of story. There’s a brother and a sister, and again the main perspective is that of the older sister, but in this case it’s the dad who is struggling with a health problem—clinical depression, brought on by the death of his wife. He’s… a pretty hapless father. The older sister has to grapple with managing the family’s laundromat—their only source of income—and fending off the plotting of a clownishly evil neighbor, a yoga teacher hell-bent on taking possession of the laundromat. She also has to deal with a haunting—a ghost who just wants to be friends, but she doesn’t know that at first. The art style is more less cute and more angular and the coloring more stylized (neither of which is a bad thing), but for me the presence of a horrid villain—even a pathetic, ridiculous one who is revealed to be desperate and terrified himself—made the story a little harder to take seriously. Still, I have to admit I sympathized more with the protagonist in this book, given how much she was saddled with. 

What’s interesting is the differences in the town between the two. Ghosts is about outsiders coming to an unfamiliar community, discovering its supernatural secrets, and learning to live with them. It’s about becoming an insider and accepting a community’s acceptance—which is to say, it’s almost a folk horror story, except that the “horror” isn’t horrible and the outsiders join the community—and on some level, it’s a positive rediscovery of one’s own roots, since the girls in the story are partly Mexican, but grew up unfamiliar with Mexican culture and the Spanish language. It’s possible to critique the presentation of the ghosts and the mission, I suppose, but I also find it a bit of a leap to assume the ghosts are all Indigenous and none of them are Spanish-speaking, er, ancestors of the current-day (Latinx) residents of the community in the story. 

Sheets, on the other hand, is about a member of a community who is nonetheless excluded, and who finds aid and fellowship in the similarly excluded, rejected, and suppressed supernatural. It’s the story of accepting the positives of outsider status, and because of this there’s more freedom to present certain members of the community as downright monstrous and terrible. It’s also a story with not link to heritage, background, or deep roots: the ghosts are excluded and denied because they’re ghosts, and the past they keep alive is just a generic small-town American past. History’s people become outsiders to us, as excluded as our modern social pariahs; but those who are excluded can find kinship with outsiders of the past. (This is true even in the absence of ghosts, of course.) The story doesn’t risk representing the complex colonial past, which of course someone could easily consider an exclusion too. Is that better? 

The appeal of each book is different, therefore. I found Ghosts more comfortable while I was reading it, but looking back, Sheets is the narrative that has stuck with me longer. 

Series Navigation<< <em>Beyond the Burn Line</em> by Paul McAuley<em>Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters</em> by David Hockney >>

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