I must admit, when I first learned of the holiday known as Day of the Dead, I was a little taken aback. Walking into a gift shop in Tucson some years ago and being greeted by an array of skeletons, I could only wonder, what was the appeal?
Then, ironically, a man who attends Quaker Meeting, where I am a member, introduced the holiday to our Sunday school children. He had made beautiful papel picado, cut paper banners, carefully carved with an exacto knife. I was told this holiday helps people remember their relatives who have passed on and is meant to be a joyous event.
Roseanne Greenfield Thong has certainly accomplished that goal. Carles Ballesteros’ illustrations exude all the joy and fun of the closely related holiday of Halloween. But Dia de los Muertos, rooted in pre-Christian tradition, is more closely allied to All Souls Day, the day Catholics remember their deceased loved ones. The Day of the Dead is about honoring and remembering those who’ve passed, and celebrating their lives in a joyous way. The children in the story gather gifts to adorn remembrance altars. Treats and mementos fill the altars in hopes of enticing the spirits of the dead to come back and visit for one night. Perhaps a picture of grandpa, “…who’s riding on horseback just like Pancho Villa!” Dollhouses and trains may be left out for small angelitos (children who’ve passed.)
The rhyming text keeps the story playful, not scary, and describes all the treats the children make for themselves—and their ancestors. “Sweet Calaveras, so sugary white—they give toothy smiles, but never a fright.”
The vibrant pastels and deep reds, blues and greens of the illustrations are a welcome relief to the ubiquitous orange and black colors of Halloween. There is a two page addendum explaining the holiday and a glossary assists in understanding the Spanish words. This is a beautiful book and has convinced this skeptic that the Day of the Dead is indeed a joyous and necessary holiday. I couldn’t help but think how this holiday could’ve served my needs as a child, when I lost my father at a young age. Although we remember our loved ones with sorrow, Dia de los Muertos reminds us of the happiness they brought into our lives. I am sure this story will spark fond memories in many children, as well as the adult readers. A very special book.