We all need friends.
They are the people who are always there for you, love you regardless of your strange flaws and (hopefully endearing quirks) and who make your time here on this earth far more than just the sum total of what you bring to the table.
But what happens after you’re dead? Is friendship still a necessary thing then?
If you think this is a weirdly existential way to begin a review of a picture book, think again because Gusatvo the Shy Ghost by Flavia Z. Drago, a Mexican-based illustrator who dreamed of becoming mermaid but happily for us settled on designing instead, is all about the deep necessity of friendship no matter who you are, and what your state of life, or death, might be.
In this gorgeous book, that comes with designs so richly colourful and emotionally resonant that your heart is engaged almost instantly in surprisingly affecting ways, Gustavo is a ghost who desperately wants to be friends with all the other playful monsters around him.
It’s not that they’re being cruel or exclusionary; they simply don’t realise Gustavo is there because he’s so shy.
He’s so shy in fact that he’s uncomfortable ordered icy treats from Eye Scream van, and his only way to try and make contact with his would-be friends is to turn himself into their soccer ball or canvas for their painting.
As for direct interaction? Oh no, dear, sweet, lovably reticent Gustavo can’t do that.
Watching how desperately this lovely little ghost, who is adept at passing through walls, glowing in the dark, and importantly for the book’s heartwarming narrative, which reaches its high point, rather fittingly, on Día de los Muertos or the Mexican day of the Dead, and playing the violin with moving passion.
Gustavo the Shy Ghost is impossible not to like.
The central character is a beguiling joy and you can’t help but put up your hand over and over to voluntee to be his friend.
That’s because not only is Gustavo a wonderful young ghost but if you have ever felt disconnected from people for whatever reason, you, your children or nephews and nieces or whoever reads this book (and that should be everyone, regardless of age) will find much with which to identify in his heart wrenching story.
A heart wrenching story which, by the way, comes with a wonderfully affirming, happy ending, the telling of which is best left to the reading, renewing your sense that people are basically good, even in the afterlife, and will make the very best of friends if you can only find the best way for you to make contact.
That is the key thing in this warm hug of a picture book; not everyone is an extravagent extrovert and will make friends in a way that works for them.
Finding that way can be tricky but Gustavo gets there and his life, or rather his afterlife, is joyously transformed, all of which happens with artwork so vibrantly beautiful and so enchantingly detailed – Drago admits to inserting many of her own interests into the delightful bits and pieces that fill each page up – that you will as swept up in the enchanting visuals as you are in the finely-worded text that accompanies them.
Gustavo the Shy Ghost has it all – a delightful protagonist who deserves all the friends in the world, a simple but emotionally impacting narrative that absolutely delivers in the #allthefeels department, artwork that is quietly meditative but vibrantly, colourfully alive and a message that warms the heart and reminds you how important and life (or death) transformative being connected to people can be.