Updated: Sep 14, 2022
By Amaris Castillo
For the past few years, Dominican American author Claribel A. Ortega has been immersed in Ravenskill, a magical town they created in their forthcoming middle-grade book, Witchlings.
The book begins with 12-year-old Seven Salazar as she anxiously waits for the Black Moon Ceremony, a rite of passage for witchlings to be placed into covens and become established witches. More than anything, Seven wants to be sorted into one of the cool witch covens with her best friend, Poppy. The last thing Seven wants is to be what’s called a Spare witch; the witches under this designation have less power and are looked down upon by other witches.
But on the night of the long-awaited ceremony, Seven watches as most of the other witchlings are sorted into covens. She and two others are now Spares. A magic spell between them goes horribly wrong and they’re now stuck as witchlings. So begins a spellbinding adventure to seal their coven and gain their full powers.
The inspiration behind Witchlings came to Ortega in the form of one sentence.
“The first line that you read in the book is the first line that came to my brain. I had no idea who Seven Salazar was or what the Black Moon Ceremony was, or what a Spare witch was, but it’s one of those things where my brain subconsciously put this story together,” Ortega said. “Because when you read it – if you've read my other books or if you know me – you know that it's a very Claribel story. I love writing about the underdog, a scrappy kid, and a smart kid, and having all of these adventures and the humor and everything.”
Witchlings will be published on April 5 by Scholastic Inc. Ortega, who has already begun working on the second book in this series, spoke to the Dominican Writers Association about building this whole new world, writing for kids, and the ways in which Dominican culture influenced their story.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Congrats on Witchlings! You’re having an in-person launch for this book, which is something you didn't get to experience with your first book, Ghost Squad. What does this mean to you?
It means so much. I think there are certain markers that an author looks forward to when they are going to have a book published. I’ve been part of the book community for a really long time, even before I had an agent. Because I live in New York, I’m lucky enough to attend many author events, and I have been for years. Especially as I got closer to my own book coming out, it became this thing like, “Oh my gosh, I've been to so many of these. I can't wait till it's my turn.”
When I wasn't able to have my launch for Ghost Squad, I was disappointed because it was one of the things that I had really been looking forward to – to celebrate with everyone… There are many people who have been following me from day one, who I’ve never met, or people that have become my friends because of it. So it really does feel like my community is part of my journey. I did have a virtual launch, which was so much fun and still really great. We did what we could. But now to have a launch, and to have it at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square – which is such an iconic store… it’s such a beautiful store. There are lots of celebrities who are having their book launch there [laughs]. I'm sandwiched between Jimmy Fallon and Chloë Sevigny.
OK, you’re a celebrity then [laughs]!
No, no, no, no [laughs]. I'm not a celebrity, but I feel very lucky that I get to have my launch at a place like this and to celebrate with my community, which is the most important thing for me – my family, friends, all the people from the book world who have been supporting me from day one, and all those new people who have found me because of Witchlings. It really means the world to me.
What was the inspiration behind Witchlings?
I started this event on Twitter called #FinishUrBookFall, and it was a way for writers to share their works in progress and a slower alternative to NaNoWriMo that was less pressure. I wanted that same feeling of writing in community without having to finish my book in a month.
The story behind Witchlings is pretty funny. I got inspiration from a lot of different places, but the very first thing that inspired the book was actually the first line coming to me. The first line that you read in the book is the first line that came to my brain. I had no idea who Seven Salazar was or what the Black Moon Ceremony was, or what a Spare witch was, but it’s one of those things where my brain subconsciously put this story together. Because when you read it – if you've read my other books or if you know me – you know that it's a very Claribel story. I love writing about the underdog, a scrappy kid, and a smart kid, and having all of these adventures and the humor and everything. But really what it stemmed from was this line. And when I thought of it, I was like, Whoa, this is something special. It’s rare, for me anyway, to get a fully formed idea this way with such an amazing first line. I just wanted to just write and write, and get the story out there.
As I went along, I got inspired by a lot of different things. The Twelve Towns is the world where Witchlings takes place, and that’s inspired by river towns in the Hudson Valley. The spells from the book are mostly all in Spanish. There are a lot of things that are pulled from my Dominican American heritage.
Let's talk about worldbuilding. From the first chapter, you create this fascinating world called Twelve Towns in which these witchlings are trying to navigate their way – specifically Seven Salazar – in anticipation of the Black Moon Ceremony. How much time did you take to create this world?
I’m still creating it because it’s a series. Research is always a really big part of my writing process. I would say the whole time that I was drafting the book, I was also working on worldbuilding as things came up. Up until I turned in my copy edits, I was toying with things; I came up with the measuring system at the tail end of editing Book One, which is toadstools.
That was cute.
I’ve never written a book where I was creating a brand new world from scratch. There are a lot of things that you don’t account for when you’ve never done it before, so it was really a learning process for me. But I would say probably the whole year and a half that I was writing my book, a good portion of that was also me worldbuilding because I didn’t use to outline. I’m more of a pantser. Everything came in a chaotic way. But now I’m a little bit more organized and I have a book bible for Book One that copy editors at Scholastic created for me. I have a list of all of my locations and spells and characters, and that makes it a lot easier to build off of.
That’s great because I was going to ask how you organized this whole world with its nuances and intricacies? So you have a whole book that you can reference.
Yeah. And I have an outline of the first book – chapter by chapter. Believe it or not, we forget what we write sometimes, so I sometimes have to reference Book One while I’m writing Book Two.
Your main character, Seven, wants so badly to be placed in House Hyacinth during the ceremony, and not be a Spare. In the book you describe being a Spare as your destiny and magic not matching with anyone else’s. Are Spares symbolic of not feeling like you fit in that school? I know I felt that way before when I was younger.
Yeah, for sure. Being a Spare is a symbol for so many things. It’s a big symbol for being a diaspora kid. Being born in the Bronx, my family back in DR would call me a gringa. I was a white girl to them because I was born in the United States, but friends in the United States would not consider me American.
I never really felt like I had a home, when I really thought about it. I was like, So what am I? Where am I from? Where do I belong? My feeling of Sparedom came from a very young age and asking myself those questions – and being myself and always embracing the things that I liked, even if they weren't the things that everyone around me liked. Which sometimes got me picked on at school.
Like what, if you don’t mind me asking?
When I was a preteen my mom won a scholarship for me to go to summer camp through her job, because we wouldn't have been able to afford it. It was around kids that I normally wouldn’t hang out with because I grew up in the South Bronx.
One of the girls that I met was named Alex and she lived on 14th Street in New York City, so I thought she was the coolest person in the world. She was like two years older than me and she was really into British bands. She used to wear ripped jeans and had all of these really cool imported magazines. I sat with her on the bus on the way to the sleepaway camp. It was one of those formative moments for me where I was like, Hey, I really like all this stuff. This is really cool. Throughout the summer, I spent a lot of time with her and I discovered that there are other kinds of movies and music and ways to dress.
When I returned to my school in the Bronx in the fall, I wore ripped jeans. At that time, it was not OK. It was not cool at all. Everyone was like, “You look crazy.” It was really funny because I was wearing ripped jeans and bell bottoms, and this was right before all of that kind of stuff came back. But yeah, I got picked on so much. It was hard for me because I felt happier than I had ever been as a kid because I was expressing myself in a way that felt true, but everyone rejected me for it. I hung out with one or two other kids in my class and they also got picked on for stuff and it really mirrored the kinds of experience that Seven has – minus the magic.
Your prose has such unique energy. How do you channel your inner middle grader?
There’s definitely things I try to keep consistent. The language is a lot more informal when I write middle grade. They say “gonna” and, instead of “really nice,” they’ll say “real nice” or something like that. It’s not correct, but it’s very cute.
In my heart and in my brain, I am still very much like a middle grader. Middle grade jokes make me laugh so much. I love anything that has to do with silliness. I think being in touch with your inner child as an author really helps. My sense of fun and whimsy is something that I’ve always kept as a part of me. I haven't let people dim that part of me. And I never knew that it was going to come in handy for my job, but it definitely has. I’m also a tía five times, so I have a lot of kids around me to sort of mine from.
You are one of a handful – perhaps even less – of middle grade Dominican American authors. How do you feel about the growing numbers in this space?
I feel great. We need more. I really feel excited to see more Dominican authors. When I started my journey, I really didn’t know any other people writing middle grade that were Dominican or Dominican American. So now to see authors like Julian Randall whose debut was so great, it’s really fun. It’s really gratifying. I feel really proud of everyone.
It’s not easy to make it work in this industry and to write things that are authentic to our upbringing, because a lot of people will consider it limiting, right? There are people who will say, “Well, I don’t understand it so I don’t think other people will.” But I think, one by one, we’re proving those kinds of things wrong. And the more of us there are, the better it is.
I just hope that we continue to grow, we stick together, and always support one another and uplift each other because that’s how our community is going to become stronger – especially for Black Dominicans. I think it’s really important because, at that intersection, it just makes everything so much more difficult. Black authors have such a hard time breaking into publishing and getting paid fairly. I always try to boost and help Black authors, Dominican authors, as much as I can. But yeah, I’m just excited about it.
I get so happy every time I see someone following me and saying, “I also write and you helped me feel like it could be possible.” It makes me feel so excited for them, and proud that I’ve been able to play a tiny part in their journey by giving them the feeling that they could do it. I think it’s important that we keep going. You never know who’s watching you.
I know in Ghost Squad, your main character Lucely Luna is Dominican American. What about Seven?
That’s a complicated question. There’s not much mention of the human world in Witchlings. The only real reference to it is the music. We know that the human world does exist within this sort of real, but I don’t really reference countries or specific languages by name. I guess you could say that Seven is probably a Dominican descendant. Maybe some Dominican witches found the Twelve Towns [laughs]. She’s of Dominican descent somehow, but I haven't gotten into specifics. I think I’m going to probably leave that up to the imagination.
Who do you write for?
I write for all kids. I write especially for kids who don’t feel like they have a place in this world, or that they're not listened to. I think books can be such an amazing tool of communication for children who are going through something that they might not know how to express. I know that I went through that as a child. One of the storylines in Witchlings has to do with abuse, which is something that I dealt with as a child and I didn’t have the language to express it. It took me a long time to talk about it.
Books can be an avenue for kids to discover good things about themselves and discover the bad things that are happening to them aren't about them being bad children – and give them the language to speak about those things with an adult, or to to know what they are. Whether it’s identity based or something that’s happening to them at home that’s not great. So I write for the children who need my book, whoever that may be, and for adults who are healing their inner child as well.
In the book, you describe a child’s name being passed down from the grandmother. I felt like that was very matriarchal. Is that something you drew from your Dominican heritage?
Yeah, for sure. The women in my family are in charge [laughs]. The Twelve Towns is a very matriarchal society. But gender is also very fluid. There’s nothing to say that the Gran has to be a woman. I definitely drew that from my own upbringing.
I was delighted to see el cuco mentioned early on in the book. Will readers see other references or hints of Dominican folklore, myths or culture in Witchlings?
Yeah, for sure. There’s a mention of duendes in there. The dancing spell is “Kulikitakatí,” so that will be really funny for Dominican readers. There's definitely Dominican food mentioned, like Dominican cake – I call it pineapple jam cake. I think the chapter where salchichón is mentioned was cut.
Salchichónes were cut, literally [laughs]!
[Laughs] That’s my favorite. I’ll sneak it into Book Two.
What do you hope readers get out of Witchlings?
I hope that, when they finish Witchlings, they feel like they can take on the world. I hope that they laugh. I hope that they have a fun time reading it, and that they get lost in the world of Ravenskill. And also that they fall in love with the characters like I did. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Valley, Thorn, and Seven. They really dug their way into my heart.
Watch the Trailer:
About the Author:
New York Times Bestselling and award-winning author, CLARIBEL A. ORTEGA is a former reporter who writes middle-grade and young adult fantasy inspired by her Dominican heritage. When she's not busy turning her obsession with eighties pop culture, magic, and video games into books, she’s co-hosting her podcast Bad Author Book Club and helping authors navigate publishing with her consulting business GIFGRRL. Claribel is a Marvel contributor and has been featured on Buzzfeed, Bustle, Good Morning America and Deadline.
Claribel’s debut middle grade novel GHOST SQUAD is out now from Scholastic and is being made into a feature film. Her forthcoming books include Witchlings (Scholastic) and the graphic novel Frizzy (First Second.) You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok @Claribel_Ortega and on her website at claribelortega.com.
Amaris Castillo is a journalist, writer, and the creator of Bodega Stories, a series featuring real stories from the corner store. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, the Lowell Sun, the Bradenton Herald, Remezcla, Latina Magazine, Parents Latina Magazine, and elsewhere. Her creative writing has appeared in La Galería Magazine, Spanglish Voces, PALABRITAS, and is forthcoming in Quislaona: A Fantasy Anthology. One of her short stories, “The Moon and the Sun,” was longlisted for the 2021 Elizabeth Nunez Caribbean-American Writers’ Prize by the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival.
Amaris lives in Florida with her family. You can follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo and read her stories from the colmado at bodegastories.com.