February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

“Funny Bones”: Celebrating the Day of the Dead

day of the deadJosé Guadalupe Posada. His name may not be familiar, but his art is: “Skeletons riding bicycles…skeletons wearing fancy hats…skeletons dancing and strumming on guitars.” Mention the Day of the Dead holiday and it’s Posada’s etchings that come to mind. In Funny Bones (Abrams, 2015; Gr 2-5), Duncan Tonatiuh recounts the life, times, and work of this talented artist best known for his calavera cartoons. The book is one of two new titles on El Día de los Muertos you’ll want on your shelves come November.

El Día de los Muertos is a holiday celebrated on November 1–2 in Mexico and parts of Central America and the United States. Its origins date back to the Pre-Columbian period and present-day celebrations draw on ancient traditions and others associated with the Catholic All Saints’ Day. Special foods, decorations, and crafts are typical of the festivities, which celebrate family and friends that have died through offerings, music, stories, and visits to the cemetery. Short, humorous poems or “literary calaveras” are often written and read, and it is through these illustrated tributes to the deceased that Posada is remembered today.

Posada was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico, in the middle of the 19th century. As a child, he loved to draw and by the age of 18, he “discovered his lifelong passion for printing.” In the shop where he worked, he learned lithography, engraving, and etching, and outside of work, he contributed political cartoons to a small local newspaper. Posada eventually made his way to Mexico City, where he opened up his own print shop. He was soon illustrating the stories of Antonio Vanegas and calavera poetry, distributed on broadsides.

The artist created many works during his lifetime, but is considered a “master” of calavera art, often humorous, but also known for its social and political commentary. Tonatiuh covers the artist’s early years and training (including step-by-step illustrated explanations of the lithography and engraving processes), and explores the impact of the Mexican Revolution (1910–20) on his work, and suggests interpretations for his engravings, reproduced here against full-color backgrounds and decoratively framed.

Throughout the book, Tonatiuh’s characteristic earth-toned art featuring stylized figures in profile mingles with reproductions of Posada’s work. An extensive author’s note fills readers in on the history and traditions associated with the Day of the Dead, and the later artists influenced by Posada, including Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, while the glossary offers more information on art and Spanish terms, and some of the individuals mentioned in the book.

diaRoseanne Greenfield Thong’s Día de los Muertos (Albert Whitman, 2015; PreS-Gr 2) focuses on the traditions and treats associated with the holiday as it follows a family through their day in rhyme. The story unfolds on a shallow, two-dimensional stagelike setting, inviting viewers into the family’s home as its members adorn an altar, set out a photo of Grandpa, eat sweet skull-shaped candies that “give toothy smiles, but never a fright,” then head to the cemetery with blankets, incense, candles, and food in tow. After decorating the tombs and trees with flowers and paper-cut banners and creating a path of petals to guide their ancestors “to pillows and blankets for taking a rest,” they set out a picnic of fresh fruit, tamales, pots of chicken stew, mugs of “chocolaty” atole, and the sugary pan de muerto.

In the afternoon, the family and villagers don costumes and march through town, accompanied by dancers and musicians. Skeletons—with faces painted white and wearing the broad hats and 19th-century dress of Posada’s calavera art—are seen strolling down street along with ghosts, saints, or recognizable figures from the past. The day ends with the family’s understanding that their deceased relatives are with them that evening, and will later return “to their world without sadness or fear,/knowing they’ll stay in our hearts till next year.”

Carles Ballesteros’s energetic art exudes the joy and exhilaration of the holiday through its depiction of cheerful figures feasting, dancing, singing, and playing instruments; confetti-strewn streets; and an abundance of flowers in vibrant colors that bloom on every page. End notes offer additional information about the holiday and a glossary, and the book’s endpapers feature decorative skulls and flowers.


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Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.

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