Monday, October 31, 2011

El Dia de los Muertos / The Day of the Dead

It’s probably safe to say that el Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, has reached a point of recognition in American society that it did not have even a decade ago. So much so that the candy company Russell Stover now makes Day of the Dead themed candy with bilingual wrappers. This is the first year I see these, and thanks to the packaging I learned the Spanish word for marshmallow. Mmm, malvavisco. Sounds, um, yummy. 

The Day of the Dead is sometimes explained as a sort of Mexican or Latin American version of Halloween, but it really is not. El Dia de los Muertos, which actually spans two days from November 1 to November 2 (or three, starting October 31, depending on who you ask), is a time when people remember their loved ones who have passed away. It is believed that on those days the souls of the dead return to visit. We honor them and welcome them back by creating ofrendas, altars on which offerings of their favorite foods, photos, belongings and other items are set out for their return. In Mexico and other countries that commemorate this time, it is customary to also visit and clean the graves of loved ones. I asked my mother what her family did when she was a girl in Mexico and she said they would visit her brother's grave, clean it, bring flowers and wreaths and pray, but that they did not create a home altar. Some people also played music in the cemetary. The Day of the Dead is also a time when death is recognized, and even celebrated, as a natural part of the cycle of life, a reminder that the dead are always still with us, and that death is not something to be feared.

There are a number of books for children about the Day of the Dead. A search for books to read to my own son turned into a research project of sorts as I began to look at the books I found under a more careful lens. I found that many of the books about the Day of the Dead include the following:

  • a child who has lost a grandparent and is preparing to welcome him or her back during the Day of the Dead
  • conflict in which either the child is uncertain of how the deceased loved one will find him or her or is trying to figure out what to contribute to the ofrenda
  • ends with the child receiving or believing to have received a sign of the deceased loved one’s visit
  • usually takes place in an unnamed location, but we can assume that it is a small, rural area outside of the United States based on the appearance of the surroundings and the outfits worn by the main and background characters
  • feature key characteristics of the Day of the Dead including skeletons or skulls, pan de muertos, the ofrenda, marigolds, and a cemetary
  • illustrations in which the children (and their families) are depicted as rural or peasants, are wearing somewhat dated and more culturally traditional clothing, or wear what appear to be Catholic school-type uniforms
A couple of other common threads I noticed among a few of the books:

  • the reader, via the young protagonist, is reassured that the skeletons are nothing to be afraid of and should be mocked or poked fun at
  • references to the Day of the Dead as the equivalent of Halloween 

Another common issue I found with these books is the subject classification assigned. Admittedly, I can be a little obsessive about Library of Congress subject headings. I discovered that there is no subject heading for the Day of the Dead. Perhaps this isn’t a huge deal in terms of being able to find books since online catalogs allow users to search by keyword. However, I have issues with what could be an inaccurate description of books about the Day of the Dead. The subject heading assigned to books about the holiday is All Souls’ Day. Not being an expert in religious holidays and observances, I dug a little to find out exactly what All Souls’ Day is about. I discovered that while All Souls’ Day is observed on November 2 it has a somewhat darker connotation than what we’ve come to know of the Day of the Dead. All Souls’ Day is affiliated with souls in purgatory who aren’t yet ready for their final destinations (whether they are heading upstairs or not). The idea of souls in limbo doesn’t exactly connect, in my mind, with the celebration of the Day of the Dead, a time in which the spirits of deceased loved ones are remembered and welcomed back for a brief period of time. Perhaps something has been lost in the cross-culture translation of the Day of the Dead. 

I deliberated about outlining why I would not recommend specific titles, and then considered only listing the books I would recommend. Since I did not read all the children’s books on the subject that are available at my library (and lest you think I did), I decided to compile a list of the books I looked at and highlight the ones I recommend. The titles highlighted (with two asterisks next to them) would be recommended to anyone wanting to introduce a child to the Day of the Dead or, more generally, to the ideas the underlie the celebration: that our loved ones are always with us, even when they are gone, and that death is a part of the life cycle that should not be feared.

  • **Ancona, George. Pablo Remembers: The Fiesta of the Day of the Dead (Pura Belpre Honor Book for Illustration, 1996)
  • Freschet, Gina. Beto and the Bone Dance (2001)
  • **Johnston, Tony. Day of the Dead
  • Joosse, Barbara M. Ghost Wings
  • Krull, Kathleen. Maria Molina and the Days of the Dead
  • Levy, Janice. I Remember Abuelito: A Day of the Dead Story
  • Levy, Janice. The Spirit of Tio Fernando: A Day of the Dead Story
  • **Morales, Yuyi. Just A Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book (Pura Belpre Medal for Illustration, 2004) 
  • **Morales, Yuyi. Just In Case: A Trickster Tale and Spanish Alphabet Book (Pura Belpre Medal for Illustration, 2009; Pura Belpre Honor Book for Narrative, 2009)
Yuyi Morales’ Just in Case and Just A Minute are not about el Dia de los Muertos per se, but both make the connection between the living and the dead through the character of Señor Calavera who in one book comes for Grandma Beetle and in the other brings the deceased Grandpa Zelmiro to celebrate a birthday with the living.

I should also mention that I found one Spanish language book at my library. El Dia de Muertos by Ivar Da Coll was published by Lectorum, a Spanish language book distributor based in New Jersey. In El Dia de Muertos, two young siblings await the arrival of their grandmother who, for once, is alive! The grandmother tells them humorous stories and passes on the traditions of the Day of the Dead celebration. The book is written in rhyme which makes it fun to read. Unfortunately, the four books I highlighted as recommended above are not bilingual in that they do not offer parallel English and Spanish text. They do integrate Spanish words into the English narrative with either a glossary or in-text translation as explanation of Spanish words and concepts.

If you wish for specifics on why certain titles were not recommended send me a message, and I’d be happy to let you know. I don’t think any of the book I didn’t choose include any especially egregious errors or misrepresentations (although, of course, what is egregious is subjective). The biggest issue I had with any one of the books is the way in which one in particular depicts immigration and compares life in, I’m assuming, Mexico and life in the United States.

1 comment:

  1. So can the Library of Congress be petitioned for a new classification heading? Seems significant to me. And I happen to think you could personally fill that egregious gap and write a really good kids' book more fully exploring this poignant day.