By JoAnn Yao
Frizzy is an upcoming graphic novel written by Claribel A. Ortega and illustrated by Rose Bousamra, out October 18, 2022! We’re delighted to welcome Claribel and editor Kiara Valdez to the WNDB blog to discuss this moving middle grade story about the thorny subject of “good hair,” how self-esteem can be harmed by ideas passed down through generations, and, most importantly, finding a path to self-love.
Marlene loves three things: books, her cool Tía Ruby and hanging out with her best friend Camila. But according to her mother, Paola, the only thing she needs to focus on is school and “growing up.” That means straightening her hair every weekend so she could have “presentable”, “good hair”.
But Marlene hates being in the salon and doesn’t understand why her curls are not considered pretty by those around her. With a few hiccups, a dash of embarrassment, and the much-needed help of Camila and Tia Ruby—she slowly starts a journey to learn to appreciate and proudly wear her curly hair.
This interview has been lightly condensed.
This graphic novel is unique in that the seed for the concept actually came from you, Kiara—tell us about that.
KIARA VALDEZ, EDITOR AT FIRST SECOND: I made it a goal for when I started acquiring books a few years later that I would acquire the middle grade graphic novel that the Latina, Black, little me needed when I was a kid. I wanted a graphic novel about a young Dominican girl who stops straightening her hair and learns to love her curls because it took me way too long to do. But it’s not like agents were sending me this very specific pitch, so I decided I would just build it myself.
I was adamant to get a Dominican writer for the graphic novel, and I knew Claribel from Twitter so I reached out to them with the idea. I was sent the manuscript for Ghost Squad as a gauge of Claribel’s storytelling skills, and after reading it I was confident I could trust them with this story. I then went on a search for the perfect artist to capture the look and feeling we wanted for this story. It took a lot longer than expected and we had a setback or two, but finally we found Rose who immediately assured me they loved to draw hair and whose style couldn’t have been more perfect for the book. I feel like I lucked out immensely—the two of them have worked so flawlessly together and have poured so much love into Frizzy. We’re truly a dream team.
As the editor, you’re effectively the glue holding the project together. Claribel mentioned how you’d send script examples to help with the writing and Rose, the artist, mentioned how you’d provide visual references to help with the art. That’s a lot to organize and manage! What’s your process for coordinating between everyone, as well as conducting your own research?
KIARA: Haha, that’s honestly just a regular Tuesday for an editor! I often say that being an editor is a “people job” because most of our job is managing other people (their schedules, personalities, and quirks), liaising between our authors/agents and every department in-house, liaising between departments, etc. I’ve learned that the key to good coordination in this business is just frequent and excessive communication. There are just so many moving parts, especially with graphic novels which are one of the most complicated and involved books to make, and details can get very easily confused or mixed up. I just made sure that Claribel and Rose were involved in every single part of the Frizzy-making process from start to finish. We all worked as a team, and I felt comfortable both as an editor and a teammate to pitch in any ideas I had so we could shape Frizzy into an amazing graphic novel.
Of course bringing any book into the world is a collaborative effort, but are there any parts of yourself in particular that you feel ended up in the graphic novel?
When Claribel and I were first connecting to talk about Frizzy and what the story would be, we actually laughed a lot about how similar our experiences were growing up. Both our mothers were hairstylists (because a majority of Dominican women who immigrate to NYC are) and both were obsessed with controlling our hair for better or worse. We both had that one pale, blonde cousin the family put on a pedestal. Along with a bunch of other similarities I’m sure many Dominicans, and Latines in general would relate to. So, as an extension of all this shared experience, I feel like there is a lot of me that I can see in this graphic novel. That’s the effect we aimed for.
(But if we want to talk about very specifics, Glenys the mean hairstylist is named after my childhood hairstylist who I actually love and still go to! It was a little moment of glee that Claribel took the name suggestion.)
Claribel, this is such a personal story. Did you immediately connect with the concept when it was brought to you?
CLARIBEL A. ORTEGA, AUTHOR OF FRIZZY: I did! I had a really complicated relationship with my hair and my curls, and I knew this was a story I would love to tell. My mom was a hairdresser when I was growing up and I loved to watch her do people’s hair, and play with the many roller sets we had at home but I never really questioned that straight hair was always seen as synonymous with beautiful hair. It took me a long time to undo that, and it was a journey to get to the point where I felt comfortable wearing my hair naturally for special events, for example, or even for work. I wanted to hopefully give kids a shortcut to get to that point and parents a new perspective on how and why we define beauty in our communities. All of it really resonated with me.
Some things—like the scene where classmates put tape in Marlene’s hair—were pulled from your own life. What has been your practice for writing things that are true and painful, while holding space for your own emotional well-being? Do you have any advice for marginalized writers trying to do the same?
CLARIBEL: Writing about those moments was difficult for me, and talking about them with loved ones was important for my mental health. My mom, who watched me go through that pain when I was a kid, talked to me a lot while I was writing Frizzy and we would commiserate about those tough moments together. I would also take breaks when I needed to. If writing a specific scene was particularly hard, I would take a walk or close the document and do something else and that’s something I do with all my books. I think only you know what you can handle in terms of sharing traumatic or difficult parts of your own life and it’s important to remember you can always pull back if you need to. Your mental health and well being will always be more important than any book.
You’ve spoken about how much love but also honesty went into writing this story. Do you find that the two tend to balance each other tonally as you write, or is it a constant process of calibrating?
CLARIBEL: It’s a bit of both but I do think love and honesty come hand in hand when writing. I wrote Frizzy from a gentle place of introspection and the hindsight of an adult who had already been through a similar story and got through it, even if I definitely did not figure it out as quickly as Marlene did. Being able to talk about tough topics like anti-Blackness within the Latine community comes from a place of wanting better for kids today, from love for our elders who’ve been stuck in and have perpetuated the cycle, and to grant that opportunity for dialogue and change we have to be honest with ourselves and one another. I tried to bring that energy to the writing, but do it in a gentle, loving way, so balancing those tough moments with the funny, or heartwarming was crucial. It did come naturally, but it was also very intentional, and we were super careful about handling those parts of the story with as much care as we could.
If you could send this book back in time to your younger self, what encouragement or insights would you send along with it?
KIARA: I would tell her that she is just as pretty and girly with her curly hair. And that all those hours in the salon every Saturday would be better spent doing a hobby that makes her happy, like drawing or writing. I’d also assure her that one day she would cut all her hair off anyhow so there was no point building her self-esteem around it because she’s so much more than her hair.
CLARIBEL: Oh gosh, I would tell my younger self, “Hey, this is gonna save you a lot of time and therapy,” haha. I would reassure myself that I don’t need to look like my classmates in order to be beautiful or feel good about myself. There are many ways to be beautiful, to be confident, and that all hair is good hair!
Kiara Valdez is an Afro-Dominican writer and an editor at First Second. She was born and raised in New York City (shout out to Washington Heights) and has been an avid comics reader all her life. She graduated from Williams College with a double major in English Literature and Japanese, and spends her free time reading, writing, and enjoying a long list of other hobbies she can’t keep up with.
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. Claribel is a Marvel contributor and has been featured on Buzzfeed, Bustle, Good Morning America and Deadline. Claribel’s NYT Bestselling debut middle grade novel Ghost Squad is being made into a feature film. Her latest book Witchlings (Scholastic) was an Instant NYT and #1 Indie Bestseller. Her graphic novel Frizzy with Rose Bousamra is out October 18th, 2022 from First Second. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Tiktok @Claribel_Ortega and on her website at claribelortega.com.
JoAnn Yao is the Social Media Manager for We Need Diverse Books. Among other things, she has conducted research for the American Film Institute, provided book and script coverage for a Hollywood agency, designed an online narrative game, and written a comic for a New Frontiers anthology. She lives in New York City with her dragon’s hoard of books. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.