Candlewick Press, 2020
Gustavo is a young ghost. He enjoys doing all “the normal things that paranormal beings do”—he can change his shape, make objects fly, pass through walls, and glow in the dark. And he loves playing beautiful music on his violin. But Gustavo is shy beyond words, and making friends is, well—more than terrifying.
He’s so shy that no one else in his ghostly barrio notices him—even when he’s right in front of them in any of his many different forms: a balloon, a lampshade, a surfboard, a soccer ball, a sheet drying on a clothesline, a soap bubble, and one of Diego Rivera’s unfinished paintings.
This child of mixed parentage (dad is a ghost and mom is a skeleton) is secretly in love with Alma, “the prettiest monster in town.” She is popular and so is her name (it’s Spanish for “soul” or “spirit”)—and appropriately headless (with eyeglasses in front of where her eyes would be).
Gustavo finally musters the courage to overcome his timidity and organize a violin concert at the Día de los Muertos party—“next full moon” at the local cemetery—and sends invitations to all of the monsters in town.
But no one shows up. So Gustavo does what he loves most—his music makes him so happy that he literally glows. Soon, everyone is there. Gustavo’s concert is a success and all of his paranormal neighbors want to be friends with him. “And they never stopped loving him.”
Zorilla Drago’s multimedia artwork—combined with, as she notes, “a bit of digital sorcery”—has a childlike quality as vibrant and playful as her storyline, and is loaded with folk, mythological, and (refashioned) pop-culture figures. Her palette consists of mostly flat, neutral colors alongside touches of Mexican pinks (seen on art, design, clothing and buildings all over México) and bright oranges (for cempazuchitl, or “marigolds”—the national flower that decorates ofrendas and cemeteries during Día de los Muertos celebrations). These two colors frame the awesome book jacket as well.
Besides Diego Rivera as a zombie, youngsters will encounter Posada’s La Catarina as a vain young skeleton; the gruesome beheaded Ichabod Crane as an adorable pumpkin-head boy, the Gingerbread Man, Disney’s Milo the Fish, an anime Catgirl, and many others. And (this took some research): Zorilla Drago depicted the International fútbol (soccer) star, Roberto López Ufarte, nicknamed “the Little Devil”—as a little devil.
There are also small images and details that will engage young readers, such as Edgar Allen Poe’s ever-present raven, a goldfish skeleton swimming in a fishbowl, a tiny Indigenous ghost-doll, strings of papel picado skulls, an ofrenda, a floating teapot pouring tea into a floating teacup, a skeleton violinist on a poster advertising “Danse Macabre,” and drawings and portraits of ghost families lining the walls.
Yet with all of these illustrations to pore over, nothing is crowded. Rather, Zorilla Drago’s art and book design maintain their physical integrity and every detail is allowed its space. And there is nothing frightening here. After all, this is Gustavo’s barrio—his neighborhood, his culture, his people. All of the paranormal characters are normal ghosts or skeletons, and they are all smiling.
Young hablantes and English-speakers will love how Zorilla Drago’s rhythmic story and playful art come together in a soft, satisfying whole.
Both in Spanish and English, as well as in the art, Zorilla’s Drago’s humor shines. In the English version, for instance, an ice cream vendor’s cart is brightly painted “EYE-SCREAM” and in Spanish, it’s “HELADOS YETI” (or “Yeti ice cream”).
In the story as well, neither the Spanish nor the English version is a direct translation of the other; rather each has its own rhythm and syntax. For example, while an English passage reads, “More than anything, he wanted to make a friend,” the Spanish reads, “Más que nada, soñaba con tener un amigo” (“More than anything, he dreamed of having a friend.”)
Gustavo, El Fantasmita Tímido and Gustavo, the Shy Ghost are highly recommended.
[Note: Although this awesome story and art, in Spanish and English, depicts an aspect of Día de los Muertos, it is not solely about this important cultural holiday. Around Día de los Muertos time, educators who might not be familiar with Mexican culture might want to supplement Gustavo, El Fantasmita Tímido // Gustavo, the Shy Ghost with George Ancona’s beautiful photojournalistic essay, Pablo Remembers: The Fiesta of the Day of the Dead (Lothrop, 1993).