Bone-Rattling Fun: Picture Books for Día de los Muertos

The students’ ofrenda.

Bookends logoCindy: One of my favorite research projects my middle school did last year was for Día de los Muertos, or, the Day of the Dead, which is celebrated on the first and second day of November—right around the corner! Senorã Dykstra, one of our Spanish teachers, asked her students to research deceased Hispanic artists and authors. The students then built an ofrenda, a collection of objects that serve as an offering to the dead, in our main hallway’s display case to celebrate the authors’ lives. The display was enjoyed by everyone, but it was really appreciated by our Hispanic students who enjoyed having their culture honored.

Funny Bones by Duncan TonatiuhLast year for this project I had looked into Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada, known for his iconic calavera drawings, but I couldn’t find a teen publication about him so I ordered some adult titles instead. The calavera are skeletons who celebrate the joy of life and have become integral to the Day of the Dead celebrations. This year, I am really excited to have a new picture-book biography about Posada to help my students understand his life and work: Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras (2015) by Duncan Tonatiuh. Tonatiuh uses a combination of his own brilliant, distinctive art and original Posada art to illustrate the biography. As he describes Posada’s journey as an artist, Tonatiuh also explains the processes of lithography, engraving, and etching which Posada employs in his art.

Much of Posada’s life and work has been shrouded in mystery, although new details continue to come to light. Tonatiuh uses this to his advantage by getting his readers to muse about Posada’s meaning in his art. For instance, a page of Tonatiuh’s art and text describes his drawings of common people compared to famous figures. On the opposing page, a solid color displaying Posada’s art asks the question:

Was Don Lupe saying that . . . Calaveras are all around us? That we are all Calaveras, whether we are rich or poor, famous or not?

This format is used for a half-dozen pages and will give older students something to think about as they study the art. The questions could be used as writing prompts as well. Funny Bones is a perfect elementary biography, but I’d definitely add this to middle-school collections. I’d consider it for high-school collections as well for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, but especially to supplement political-cartoon study and art classes.

Dia de los MuertosLynn: For young children, some of the elements of the Day of the Dead celebrations may seem strange or even a little scary. Roseanne Greenfield Thong’s Dia de los Muertos (2015) is an excellent choice to use with young readers to explain the celebration. Thong’s simple, rhyming text adds a bouncy element, which Carles Ballesteros enhances with his bright, colorful, and very cheerful illustrations. Spanish terms are used throughout the text and explained in context or by the illustrations. The book’s tone is as reassuring as it is informative. There are a lot of details included in the illustrations that will make this book good for individual reading, but it will be fun for a group or as a story-hour read-aloud, too.

Back matter includes more extensive information on Día de los Muertos and a glossary.



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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