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  • Writer's picturePicture Book Snob

How to win friends and influence ghouls

Gustavo the Shy Ghost by Flavia Z. Drago, Walker Books

Here's a book that had been on my wishlist for ages and one I really regret not getting hold of sooner. I fell in love with Gustavo after seeing a takeover by author-illustrator Flavia Z. Drago on the Walker Books Instagram Page last year. At the time, I hadn't been blogging long, was unemployed due to Covid-19, and the book was only available in hardback. I have to laugh when I think of how much money I've spent on picture books since then, but in October 2020, I was still capable of being (relatively) sensible. It didn't seem wise to invest in a hardback that I thought would only be read for a month, no matter how wonderful it looked. HOW WRONG I WAS! Gustavo the Shy Ghost can be enjoyed at any time; it's not exclusively a Halloween story. It would have been absolutely perfect for us when it originally released as my eldest had just started primary school and was feeling a lot like Gustavo.

Gustavo the Shy Ghost by Flavia Z. Drago, Walker Books

This beautiful book about bravery, friendship and overcoming fears features a socially anxious little ghost called Gustavo, who struggles to feel seen and heard. He is perplexed by how easily others make friends while he is perpetually lonely. Interacting with his peers terrifies him but he finds solace in music and is a skilled violin-player. Will Gustavo find a way to use his strengths to his advantage?

The first time we read the line describing Gustavo's efforts to mingle, "But even when he was right in front of them ... they just couldn't see him," it really resonated with my six-year-old. She turned to me and said "that's what used to happen to me in the playground last year."I'm sure it's the same for lots of children starting school and this book would be a wonderful resource for teachers as well as parents.

Gustavo the Shy Ghost by Flavia Z. Drago, Walker Books

Gustavo shows that when you just be yourself and do what you love, the people who matter will see how amazing you are. It's brilliant how Gustavo uses his strengths to his advantage until his perceived weaknesses fade into the background, just as he used to. I love how it celebrates the comfort that is derived from music and creativity too. There's an inspiring and moving note from the author-illustrator at the back of the book, in which she mentions her own experience of being shy and how learning to draw helped. When I read this aloud to my kids, my four-year-old always says "she's an artist ... just like me," which is another reason this book makes me smile.

Gustavo the Shy Ghost by Flavia Z. Drago, Walker Books
I love how this solitary attempt at see-sawing communicates how miserable and hopeless Gustavo feels

The illustrations are delightful – so intricate, animated and cute. The Mexican folk art influences make them even more interesting. Gustavo looks adorable when transforming into different objects and we love spotting him hiding in the background. There are so many details on every page – even in the endpapers.

We just got this book last week and when we opened it and saw Gustavo in the endpapers, my girls burst out laughing immediately – before we had read a word of the text. He's on his own in a photo booth at the start of the book, a stark contrast to the endpapers at the back. The latter are formatted like a photo album and show various happy scenes with Gustavo and friends, including one with them crowding a photo booth.

Gustavo the Shy Ghost by Flavia Z. Drago, Walker Books

The artwork is incredibly striking with a colour palette that's atmospheric as well as attractive. Flavia Z. Drago has constructed Gustavo's world carefully and convincingly. Even the books and albums in Gustavo's house have been given names and reference classic works of literature and iconic '80s bands.

It's not possible to mention everything we love about this book, or all the clues hidden in its pages. It's more fun for you to explore the illustrations yourself and, just like all the best picture books, there are more details to discover on each re-reading. Don't be fooled like me and think this is just for Halloween or that you can wait a little longer to get hold of it! When you make Gustavo's acquaintance, your only regret will be that you hadn't done so sooner – just like the little monsters in this book.

Gustavo the Shy Ghost by Flavia Z. Drago, Walker Books

About the author-illustrator: Flavia Zorrilla Drago and was born and raised in Mexico City. When Flavia was a child, her dream was to become a mermaid. Sadly, that didn't happen, but around the same age, something else did: she started drawing.

Flavia started her career as a graphic designer and then became an illustrator. This has given her the opportunity to live and travel, doing what she loves, in different countries such as Spain, France, and England. Flavia recently I graduated from the Children's Book Illustration MA at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge.

Gustavo the Shy Ghost by Flavia Z. Drago, Walker Books

Gustavo the Shy Ghost was the 2021 winner of the Klaus Flugge Prize which honours the most promising and exciting newcomers to picture book illustration - read more

Read an interview with Flavia Z. Drago on the Association of Illustrators website

Gustavo the Shy Ghost was published by Walker Books in October 2020 and has just been released in paperback - see this book on the publisher's website

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