It’s Not So Scary! The Day of the Dead and Children’s Media


By Cris Rhodes

deadfamilydiazWith the Day of the Dead this weekend, I am reminded of recent children’s media, like P.J. Bracegirdle’s The Dead Family Diaz and Jorge Gutierrez’s film The Book of Life, that juxtapose the fraught topic of death against the colorful backdrop of the Day of the Dead. Through their fanciful visuals, full of lush, opulent colors and whimsical and endearing skeleton figures, books and films for children about the Day of the Dead repurpose traditionally scary imagery and repackage it as a beautiful celebration of both death and Mexican culture. While skeletons and death are often regarded as nightmare fuel in children’s literature and media, Day of the Dead narratives embrace the terrifying and show their readers and watchers that these spooky things aren’t so scary after all.

In recent years, for many Mexicans living in Mexico and abroad, Day of the Dead celebrations have come to symbolize something integral to the Mexican cultural identity. The Day of the Dead epitomizes Mexico’s complicated relationship with death and the afterlife, a tradition that finds its roots in the pre-Colombian celebrations of the days of the dead that allowed for the agrarian Mesoamericans to appeal to their bygone ancestors for a fruitful crop. The celebration as it manifests itself today comes from a blending of cultures; while many of the more traditional elements still pay homage to their Mesoamerican foundations, it’s becoming increasingly more common to find hybridized Day of the Dead celebrations throughout the U.S.

cocoFurthermore, mainstream American media have even started a push to officially recognize the Day of the Dead and its unique qualities, as evidenced by the forthcoming Disney/Pixar film Coco, directed by Toy Story 3’s Lee Unkrich with Mexican-American cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz acting as a cultural advisor. Despite Disney’s ill-fated bid to trademark the Day of the Dead in 2013, the company has persisted in making a Day of the Dead-themed film, which stands to be Disney/Pixar’s first film to feature a Latino protagonist. While very few details about Coco have been released, I choose to be optimistic and hope that it, like so many other Day of the Dead narratives, use the potentially terrifying images of skeletons and the similarly scary as reclaimed images that celebrate Mexican culture and its myriad qualities.

While many people tend to conflate the Day of the Dead and Halloween (as evidenced by the released dates of both Day of the Dead-centered films, Coco and The Book of Life, in either October and November), the two are entirely separate celebrations. But the Day of the Dead’s proximity to Halloween, and Halloween’s typically more frightening imagery, often makes the Day of the Dead guilty by association. However, Day of the Dead picture books and films erase fear of the dead through their bookoflifeheart-warming and endearing depictions of living children and their interactions with their deceased loved ones. In these books and the film, The Book of Life, skeletons act as a bridge between the living and the dead. While they epitomize death, skeletons (or calaveras) also connect to the living—take for example Erich Haeger’s Rosita y Conchita—in this bilingual picture book, the Day of the Dead allows the living Conchita to interact with her deceased, and skeletal, twin sister, Rosita. Skeletons also
hint to the inherent festive nature of the Day of the Dead, like the dancing skeletons in Richard Keep’s Clatter Bash! Or the festival-attending skeleton family in Bracegirdle’s The Dead Family DiazMost importantly, in these Day of the Dead narratives, none of the characters are ever truly afraid of the dead or of death. Skeletons become a common occurrence in Day of the Dead narratives, and they act as a motif throughout these texts and in The Book of Life.

By introducing the child viewer to books and to films like The Book of Life, any negative emotions connected to death are suspended. In the film’s afterworld, called the Land of the Remembered, a new world for death is created in the colorful landscapes and festive atmosphere. The Land of the Remembered is a place where memory acts as a source of life. By invoking the positivity of memory even in the absence of death, The Book of Life emphasizes that death is nothing to be feared. In this world, death is not scary nor is it a definitive ending. In the Land of the Remembered, Manolo, the film’s protagonist, is reunited with his immediate family and his ancestors. He sees his death as a necessary event that will allow him to exist with his true love, Maria. It is only after he learns that Maria has not really died and is not in the Land of the Remembered that the festivity of this place is temporarily lost, but it is regained once La Muerte, a goddess of death, and the other gods restore Manolo’s life at the end of the film.

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Ultimately, what these narratives illuminate for their young audiences is that death and all of its tenants are nothing to fear. Though other children’s books and films that explore themes related to death are often viewed as controversial (like the often-banned Bridge to Terabithia, or books that are purposefully frightening like the Goosebumps series), the celebratory nature of Day of the Dead stories provides a positive counter-narrative to the scary and off-putting norm. Teachers and librarians could and should encourage their readers to pick up Day of the Dead books like these, because they explore death and Mexican culture in a positive way. As we gear up to celebrate our own loved ones passed on this Day of the Dead, it would behoove us to take a look at Day of the Dead picture books and The Book of Life, or to eagerly anticipate Coco, as an apt way to celebrate this unique holiday.


CrisRhodesCris Rhodes is a graduate student at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi where she divides her time between working on her thesis project about Chicana young adult literature, teaching first year composition to her beloved students, and working at her university’s Writing Center. She received her B.A. from Longwood University in her home state of Virginia, where she discovered her love of children’s literature and began her journey studying Latino children’s and young adult literature through an independent study of the stereotypical depictions of Latinos in young adult literature.

Scholastic Highlights Books that Celebrate The Day of the Dead! / ¡El Dia de los Muertos!

By Concetta Gleason and Roany Molina
of the Editorial and Creative teams for Club Leo

While Hispanic Heritage Month has come to an end, it’s now time for the Day of the Dead! / ¡El Dia de los Muertos!, a significant holiday in Latin America, but most primarily celebrated in Mexico. The holiday is gaining popularity in North America and takes place over two days (November 1 and 2). It is seen as a time when the veils between the worlds of the living and dead diminish as families and friends celebrate their memories of the dearly departed.

Below are some books that explore this holiday’s unique traditions and beliefs: 

El Libro de la Vida (The Book of Life Movie Novelization) and La Travesía del Héroe (A Hero’s Journey) are fun new twists  on El Dia de los Muertos that help children learn about and celebrate the holiday. Both books are based on the upcoming movie The Book of Life, which follows the adventures of the fearless Manolo. The movie is set during the two-day celebration for the Day of the Dead. The holiday is a time to not only honor those who have passed but also appreciate the importance of life. Many people believe that during this celebration their loved ones return to visit. Families even set out offerings such as food, flowers, and games that the dead enjoyed when they were living. The Book of Life novelization and picture book allow readers to get a better understanding of the culture and tradition in an entertaining way. These books are also available in English.


La difunta Familia Díaz (The Dead Family Díaz) is a playful and humorous tale that explores the friendship of two young boys—
one living and one dead—that  changes both their (un)dead lives…and leads to some great pranks on their older siblings! The illustrations are bold and beautiful representations of ancient traditions merging with the modern, living world. La difunta Familia Díaz (The Dead Family Díaz) is also available in the Colección Herencia Hispana / Hispanic Heritage Collection.




El festival de las calaveras / The Festival of Bones expresses the joy and enthusiasm of this holiday. Gorgeous graphic illustrations of the skeletons actually dancing highlight the bilingual text, and the book includes a history of the holiday and fun activities for children.





Usborne: Motivos mexicanos para colorear (Usborne: Mexican Patterns to Color) is an activity book that explores the rich artistic history of Mexican culture with fun facts and appealing figurines to color. Special attention is paid to the Day of the Dead’s sugar skulls and costumes.






You can find all of these books online now!

Club Leo en Español supports your classroom with fun and affordable books that connect children’s home language and learning. Our books include amazing series, original titles, and winners of the Pura Belpré Award, which celebrates the remarkable contributions of artists who give voice to the Latino community through children’s literature.

Club Leo en Español apoya tu salón de clases con libros divertidos y asequibles que conectan la lengua materna y el aprendizaje de los niños. Nuestra colección incluye increíbles series, títulos originales y ganadores del Premio Pura Belpré, que celebra los extraordinarios aportes de artistas que dan voz a la comunidad latina a través de la literatura infantil.

Las Calaveras Todas Blancas Son* Or What is the Day of the Dead?


By Zoraida Córdova

The Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday that takes place on November 1st (All Soul’s Day) and November 2nd (All Saint’s Day), and celebrates, even plays with, the dead. Its roots are a mixture of Orthodox Catholicism and pre-Hispanic traditions of prayers and material offerings. Catholics all over the world celebrate these two days, but Mexico takes it to another level. Instead of just celebrating the saints and martyrs, entire altars are built for deceased family members. There’s food and drinks and sugar skulls and singing. It’s like a big family reunion, only your grandmother’s ghost is invited as well. It is colorful and loud; the opposite of what you think of when visiting cemeteries.**

So, what does the Day of the Dead have to do with you, Zoraida?

Now, I’m a third-party observer here. Although, in Ecuador, they do make a purple drink called “colada morada” (made of some sort of blackberry and purple maize) specifically for this time of year. My Ecuadorian family is Catholic, but I’ve always considered myself a practicing agnostic (it’s not a real thing, but sure). I suck at memorizing prayers, and yet every time I pass a cemetery I cross myself. I don’t associate with any religion, and yet, I’ve always been drawn to this particular celebration.

It could be that I’m not drawn to the religious aspects of this celebration, but to the dead themselves. It’s a little macabre, I know, but hang with me here. Ever since I was little I loved ghost stories. I thought La Llorona (the weeping woman/Latina banshee figure) was real the same way most kids think the Easter Bunny is real. I sang to old salsa songs about skeletons (see blog post title). I am fascinated by death, and you know what? So are a lot of people who are not Catholic or Mexican.

What do you mean?

Well, go to your nearest book store and browse. How many bestsellers do you see featuring vampires and ghosts and zombies? I know, it’s not the same as a religious celebration honoring your dead loved ones. But I do believe that we are drawn to death and the undead, and all of the mystery it holds.

Then, think about other religions that have ceremonies/feasts to celebrate their dead. In Chinese culture, the seventh month is called “ghost month,” when the dead come to walk among the living*** In Korea, Chuseok is a holiday when people return to their ancestral hometowns.**** It’s like a combination of Thanksgiving and the Day of the Dead. And these are the only ones I’ve heard about. I can only imagine the others.

And what does this have to do with kidlit?

Loads! Look at these titles.

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The Tequila Worm     Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia     The House of Hades (The Heroes of Olympus, #4)

From twin sisters finding a way to contact each other post mortem, to a skeleton boy who makes friends with the living, to a young girl dealing with her grandfather’s death, to demigods conquering the physical manifestations of death, the Day of the Dead has made its way into our literature.

No matter what we believe in or where we come from, at the end of the day, we can all relate to loss. It’s sad and powerful and it connects us at a very basic level.

Do you celebrate the Day of the Dead? And if you don’t, do you have a similar tradition? Share it with us in the comments!

* Las Calaberas by Lisandro Meza

** The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico by Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloe Sayer

*** I first read this in House of Hades by Rick Riordan (it’s true).