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Children's Literature Reviews
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Ghost wings
by Barbara M. Joosse ; illustrated by Giselle Potter.
Contributor biographical information
Publisher description
San Francisco : Chronicle Books, 2001.
1 v. (unpaged) : col. ill. ; 26 cm.


While celebrating the Days of the Dead, a young Mexican girl remembers her wonderful grandmother who sang songs, made tortillas, chased monsters away, and loved butterflies.

Best Books:

Kirkus Book Review Stars, March 15, 2001 ; United States

State and Provincial Reading Lists:

Delaware Diamonds, 2006-2007 ; Nominee; Kindergarten, First and Second Graders; Delaware

Reading Measurement Programs:

Accelerated Reader
Interest Level Lower Grade
Book Level 3.5
Accelerated Reader Points 0.5

Lexile, MetaMetrics, Inc.
Adult Directed
Lexile Measure 390

Reading Counts-Scholastic
Interest Level K-2
Reading Level 3
Title Point Value 2
Lexile Measure AD 390


Lauren Peterson (Booklist, Apr. 15, 2001 (Vol. 97, No. 16))
This moving tale of the special relationship between a young Mexican girl and her grandmother is nicely intertwined with the story of the annual migration of the monarch butterflies to a place in Mexico called the Magic Circle. It's a place the girl and her grandmother often visited, and it's where Grandmother, nearing the end of her life, tells her granddaughter about the butterflies that "carry the souls of the old ones, and the old ones never really leave." When Grandmother dies, the girl mourns, and her memories begin to fade. Then autumn comes and with it the celebration of Days of the Dead, a time to remember those who have died. But although the child tries, she doesn't feel connected to Grandmother. Autumn is also when the butterflies return, and, in a magical ending, a butterfly on the child's arm, fanning the sun with its wings and tickling the girl with its legs, helps the child remember. Potter's watercolor and colored-pencil illustrations are nicely done, but her style, particularly the stiff figures, isn't a good match for the warm, vibrant text. A lengthy appended section includes information on the Days of the Dead festival and monarch butterflies, as well as a discussion guide with questions and activities. Category: Books for the Young--Fiction. 2001, Chronicle, $15.95. Ages 4-8.

Susan Stan (Children's Literature)
When someone you love dies, how can you keep alive your memories of that person? Joose offers a rather complicated answer through the voice of a young Mexican girl, whose beloved grandmother has died. This young narrator and her grandmother have shared many experiences, from the daily activity of making tortillas to such rare moments as being encircled by the monarch butterflies that winter nearby. From Grandmother, she has learned that the butterflies carry the souls of the old ones, and the tickle of a butterfly can bring back the memories of a person no longer living. The narrator experiences this firsthand during the Days of the Dead, when a returning monarch alights on her and memories of Grandmother come flooding back. Information pages at the end of the book provide background about the Days of the Dead and the migration patterns of monarch butterflies, followed by a guide to using the book that offers suggestions for questions and activities to extend the text. Potter's spare, naïve-style illustrations include details of the Mexican household and market but contribute a distant feel to the book. 2001, Chronicle Books, $15.95. Ages 6 to 9.

Kirkus (Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2001 (Vol. 69, No. 6))
Joosse's ("Alien Brain Fryout", 2000, etc.) sensitive tale of love, loss, and remembrance is set in a small Mexican town and intertwined with the lifecycle of monarch butterflies. A young girl and her grandmother have a special relationship: often, they walk through the woods to the Magic Circle, where the butterflies they love spend the winter. And grandmother is the only person who protects her from the monsters under the bed at night. One day, Grandmother "grew thin as smoke." She was too tired to make tortillas and wanted to say goodbye to the butterflies that were ready to leave for the north. The butterflies left; Grandmother died; and the family grieved. Papa's comforting words, "When you love someone they never leave," are meaningless as the child struggles to hold on to her memories. It is only upon the return of the butterflies--who some believe carry the souls of the dead--that the girl can recapture her memories of Grandmother again. Joosse integrates the Mexican customs of honoring the dead during the holiday period known as the Days of the Dead into a narrative that deals with universal feelings about death. Potter's ("Kate and the Beanstalk", 2000, etc.) ink, watercolor, and colored-pencil illustrations suffused with pale, warm color complement and extend the text. The stylized drawings of people with oversized heads and expressive, round faces convey great emotion. Delicate butterflies flutter around the child and Grandmother, creating a mood of love and beauty. A beautiful book, suitable for group or individual sharing. It includes a discussion guide and information on the Days of the Dead and monarch butterflies. 2001, Chronicle, $15.95. Category: Picture book. Ages 3 to 8. Starred Review. © 2001 Kirkus Reviews/VNU eMedia, Inc. All rights reserved.

Publishers Weekly (Publishers Weekly)
Potter's sublimely quirky illustrations adorn this moving tale of death and remembrance set in Mexico and linked to the rhythms of the monarch butterfly. "Grandmother was my best friend," confides the narrator, who treasures their visits to the "Magic Circle" where, every winter, the migrating butterflies "filled the trees with gold." One spring, however, Grandmother becomes "thin as smoke" and soon dies. The disappearance of the monarchs becomes a metaphor for the girl's grief. Later, during the Days of the Dead, the annual celebration honoring those who have died, the girl and her family visit her grandmother's grave. There, a butterfly alights on the girl's arm, melting her sadness: "In my head, I heard Grandmother's songs…. I remember how she smelled, like cornmeal and roses." Joosse's (Mama, Do You Love Me?) poetic descriptions ("when they flew away their wings rustled like skirts") and intriguing details of Mexican culture, from tortillas made on a metate\n to calaveras\n (traditional skull-shaped chocolate and sugar candies skulls) eaten during the Days of the Dead, inform her sensitively drawn story. (Unfortunately, a key word is spelled wrong—the family creates an "alter" to honor Grandmother.) Potter's singular watercolors, rendered in subtle earth tones and accented with pungent shades of red and orange, capture the arid landscape, and her signature characters, with their slightly elongated Modigliani-esque faces, are as graceful as the flight of a butterfly. Ages 3-8. (Apr.)"

Janice M. Del Negro (The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, July/August 2001 (Vol. 54, No. 11))
The little girl narrator is very attached to the grandmother who keeps her safe from imaginary monsters, teaches her how to make tortillas, and accompanies her to the “Magic Circle” where monarch butterflies nest in great numbers. Her grandmother becomes “thin as smoke” and dies on the day the butterflies leave, and the little girl grieves. Her grief is alleviated by the ceremonies associated with the Days of the Dead and by the return of the butterflies that “carry the souls of the old ones.” While the child narrator’s loss will elicit sympathy, the story itself is didactic and predictable. References to the migration of the monarch butterflies and the Days of the Dead accumulate with awkward purposefulness and add to an already lengthy, somewhat stilted text. Potter’s mixed-media (watercolor, colored pencil, and ink) illustrations are missing their usual vitality; the colors are washed out, and the compositions lack variety. Still, the little girl herself is often very expressive, especially in scenes featuring her smiling, gray-haired grandmother, and the magic of the monarchs cannot be denied. Notes on the Days of the Dead and monarch butterflies are included, as is a “Guide to Using this Book” that features questions and activities about feelings, memories, and butterflies. Review Code: Ad -- Additional book of acceptable quality for collections needing more material in the area. (c) Copyright 2001, The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. 2001, Chronicle, 34p, $15.95. Ages 5-9 yrs.

Kelly Milner Halls (The Five Owls, May/June 2001 (Vol. 15, No. 5))
Once a year, author Barbara M. Joosse packs up a few things, locks her Wisconsin stone cottage up tight and heads south to Mexico to visit her mother. She is not a tourist. She is not a casual observer. She is a woman who has, over the years, absorbed the flavor and nature of the Mexican culture with unquestionable affection and enduring respect. That rich relationship, that annual pilgrimage to her mother's homeland is what lends Ghost Wings both its loving heart and its resonant authenticity. Joosse's first person narrator is a quiet, thoughtful little girl, growing up in Mexico with her parents and her best friend--her "oval faced" grandmother. Through the years, a string of loving words and actions have woven their two hearts together, bound them as only tenderness can. They sing and kneed tortilla dough together most every day, her little metate along side Grandmother's larger one. When the darkness falls, it is Grandmother who curls up on the young girl's bed to frighten the nightmare monsters away. And when the monarch butterflies come to the Magic Circle to rest on the oyamel fir trees, it is Grandmother who teaches the young narrator to remember their phantom wings. Sick and old, Grandmother relies on the touch of the butterflies to help tell her sweet granddaughter farewell. "Close your eyes," Grandmother said. "Do you still feel the butterfly?" I nodded. My arm still tickled. "That's because they carry the souls of the old ones, and the old ones never really leave." As the young girl buries her beloved grandmother, she grieves but also celebrates her memorable life, revisiting the Magic Circle and honoring her on the Day of the Dead. Remembering is hard, she confesses, until a delicate monarch lands on her hand and revives the sweetness she'll never really forget. Award-winning illustrator Giselle Potter's stylized artwork shifts tones with Joosse's subtle moods--golden with the sensibilities of a life well lived, softly blue gray as that life passes on and leaves a grieving family behind, pale green as hope is revived, once again golden as the book ends. Together, Potter and Joosse have made Ghost Wings a thoughtful tribute to life, death, and the enduring love of a family. But it is just as much a tender way of honoring the Central American traditions that help make that possible for our neighbors to the south--traditions we can learn from no matter where we make our homes. 2001, Chronicle Books, 32 pages, $15.95. Ages 4 to 8.


Grandmothers Fiction.
Death Fiction.
All Souls' Day Fiction.
Butterflies Fiction.
Mexico Fiction.
LanguageCall NumberLCCNDewey DecimalISBN/ISSN
English (eng) PZ7.J7435 Gj 2001
00011183 [E]
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