Day of the Dead

author: Linda Lowery
illustrator: Barbara Knutson
Carolrhoda Picture Books / Lerner Publishing, 2004
kindergarten-grade 3 
Mexican, Mexican American

Years ago, I was working in a second-grade classroom. A child’s mother had recently died; the child was traumatized, and the teacher felt helpless. It was late October, and someone had suggested that the teacher think about continuing with her plans to celebrate el Día de los Muertos with her class. With permission and help from the child’s father and other parents, the teacher and students created an amazing ofrenda. There were fresh and paper marigolds, photos of the children’s departed relatives with stories and drawings about their lives, and other things that were meaningful to them. The particular child who had lost his mother, of course, was grieving, but he knew that he was safe in the arms of the community and it was good.

El Día de los Muertos, whose Indigenous roots run deep as an autumnal celebration of the dying and rebirth of the seasons, is practiced in Mexico, Mexican communities in the US, and throughout Latin America. It’s a joyous three-day holiday in Mexico, a one-day holiday elsewhere, a celebration in memory and honor of the family’s and community’s beloved dead. Altars are set up in homes, and graves are cleaned up and decorated with items the departed liked—such as tequila, bread, oranges, flowers, jewelry, and the like—to show them that they are remembered and loved. There’s lots of food—including tamales de mole and sweets such as candied pumpkin, pan de muerto and sugar skulls—for the occasion, and the skeletons, who feel welcomed by the offerings, return to their homes and families for awhile to visit and play with the living.

And play they do. All over the community, the colorfully costumed skeletons shoot off firecrackers, parade, make music, dance, ride bicycles or walk on stilts, and most importantly, hand out skull- and coffin-shaped candies to the children.

Lowery’s little book, part of CarolRhoda’s “On My Own Holidays” series, majorly gets it wrong on the first few pages. Here’s the text, which I had to read several times to make sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me:

The flowers and leaves and corn of summer are all gone. They have died and gone back to the earth. All over North America, people are celebrating…. They are celebrating death! Does that sound strange to you? It is not strange to the Mexican people, the Cajun people, and others who celebrate death.

Does it need to be said that honoring a community’s beloved dead is not the same as celebrating death? Further, the use of the exclamation point sensationalizes the celebration, and the prompt to young readers that it might be “strange” marginalizes the people, placing both people and culture outside of “us.” And finally, what effect will this have on Mexican-American children, unfortunate enough to be reading this in class?

Knutson’s watercolor artwork is bright, cheerful, and engaging; it depicts real Mexican and Mexican-American people, real foods and real cultural items, and gives a good sense of what this holiday is all about. I especially like the illustration of a family sitting around their altar. On the ofrenda are pictures of relatives who have passed, framed with papeles picados and marigolds, and there are candles and fruits. Mama is giving her daughter a sugar skull, while grandma is telling stories. Other illustrations depict families cooking together, toy skeletons, and my other favorite—children tossing coins and candy into a coffin, in which is a smiling teen dressed and made up as a dead person.

Aside from the first few pages, the rest of the text is actually pretty good. So here’s my recommendation: Teachers who are any way creative would do well to cover up the text on pages 5 and 6, paste in new text that honors the people and the celebration, and use this book along with George Ancona’s brilliant photo essay, Pablo Remembers: The Fiesta of the Day of the Dead.

But as it stands, I cannot recommend Lowrey’s book alone.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 4/6/13)

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