Have you ever wondered about the dancing skeletons associated with El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), or with the band “The Grateful Dead”? Duncan Tonatiuh tells the story behind these skeletons in his beautiful book about the artist and political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada.
Posada made many images over the years (he lived 1852 – 1913) but he is best-known for his illustrations of calavera poems. “Calavera” is the Spanish word for skull, and literary calaveras are short, humorous poems that imagine how a person encounters death. They are written every year, the author explains in a Note at the end of the book, especially about powerful and famous people. These poems first became popular in the late 1800s, becoming an acceptable form of political and cultural satire.
Celebration of the Day of the Dead is much older in origin, dating from Pre-Columbian times. (Catholics celebrate this day on All Hallows, or All Saints’ Day, and many other cultures celebrate it, or at least, buy lots of candy for it, on Halloween. The National Retail Federation predicted 2016 Halloween candy spending would reach $8.4 billion, an all-time high.)
Although Posada made calavera drawings for twenty-four years, he was not well-known outside Mexico until he was discovered by Jean Charlot, a French-born American painter, who publicized and popularized his work.
Famous Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera were influenced by Posada, and today, one can see his influence all around the world, although the political messages of his work have been largely forgotten. In large, full-page spreads, Tonatiuh asks, “Was Don Lupe” (as Posada was known) “saying that sometimes calaveras are not a laughing matter?” “Was Don Lupe saying that even powerful leaders one day become calaveras?” “Was Don Lupe saying that calaveras are all around us? That we are all calaveras, whether we are rich or poor, famous or not?”
Tonatiuh also provides a great deal of information about Dia de los Muertos celebrations.
End matter includes a wonderful glossary (including pronunciation guide), a bibliography, art credits for work not by Tonatiuh, and a guide to where you can see original works by Posada in the U.S.
Tonatiuh (see how to pronounce his name here where he reveals that his last name is the name of the Aztec God of the Sun), who is also an award-winning illustrator, wrote on the Seven Impossible Things blog about his gorgeous folkloric art work:
“My artwork is very much inspired by Pre-Columbian art, especially by Mixtec codices from the 14th century. That is why my art is very geometric, my characters are always in profile, and their ears look a bit like the number three. My intention is to celebrate that ancient art and keep it alive.”
The simplicity of the illustrations (which also tell the story without words) offset the details of the much denser text, and thus serve to extend the appropriate age range of this book.
Evaluation: As usual, Tonatiuh combines meticulous research with outstanding art to bring attention to history that should be better known.
Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2015