Halloween is undoubtedly one of the juggernauts of the fall/winter holiday season, but in my town and many others with vibrant Mexican-American communities, there's one to rival it. This is Dia de los Muertos, November 2nd. Originating in Mexico, this is a day to celebrate and honor your dead, and not incidentally, have a great party!
If you've got a Mexican-American community (note that I don't say Latino or Hispanic, because we come from many, many countries) or you just want to expose kids to a beautiful and fun holiday that celebrates life, try these books out.
Caveat: The images of lushly decorated skeletons, coffins, and gravestones may seem morbid to some. It's an opportunity to explain that, to those who grew up with the holiday, these are not meant to be frightening or threatening, like the similar decorations associated with Halloween. Instead, they are beautiful and familiar, as much a reminder of life as they are of death.
Calavera Abecedario by Jeanette Winter
This book goes through the Spanish alphabet using both calaveras (skeletons) and papel picado, the traditional cut-paper decorations. Many of the letters feature calaveras engaging in everyday occupations like baking or snuggling with novios (boyfriends or girlfriends). In Mexican and Mexican-American art, skeletons are often featured dressed in clothing, acting as if they were alive. It's a reminder that they were once living people who really did these things and a way to honor the memory of their life.
Clatter Bash! by Richard Keep
The calaveras climb out of their graves to party in the graveyard. They chatter, dance, sing, feast, and even tell stories! At the end of the night they say adios and gracias to their living family members and climb back into their graves for another year. Since the text is all based on the sounds made in the story, when reading it aloud to a group, I talk about the events in the pictures.
Just a Minute by Yuyi Morales and its companion book Just in Case
While these aren't tied specifically to El Dia de los Muertos, you can see its influence in Señor Calavera. Look at that guy! Isn't he beautiful? In Just a Minute, Grandmother Beetle holds off Señor Calavera by promising that she'll go with him, but she's got one more thing to do before she does. And then just one more thing . . . and just one more . . .
In Just in Case, Señor Calavera is on his way to Grandmother Beetle's birthday party, but can't decide what to bring her. A helpful ghost makes suggestions that proceed through the alphabet. When Señor Calavera arrives at the party, he realizes he's unknowingly brought the gift Grandmother Beetle wanted most of all.
Are you familiar with Day of the Dead? What are some of your favorite books about the holiday?