By Steve Dunk
Today we’re pleased to welcome Claribel Ortega to the WNDB blog to discuss Witchlings, out since April 5, 2022!
Every year, in the magical town of Ravenskill, Witchlings who participate in the Black Moon Ceremony are placed into covens and come into their powers as full-fledged witches.
And twelve-year-old Seven Salazar can’t wait to be placed in the most powerful coven with her best friend! But on the night of the ceremony, in front of the entire town, Seven isn’t placed in one of the five covens. She’s a Spare!
Spare covens have fewer witches, are less powerful, and are looked down on by everyone. Even worse, when Seven and the other two Spares perform the magic circle to seal their coven and cement themselves as sisters, it doesn’t work! They’re stuck as Witchlings-and will lose their magic.
Seven invokes her only option: the impossible task. The three Spares will be assigned an impossible task: If they work together and succeed at it, their coven will be sealed and they’ll gain their full powers. If they fail… Well, the last coven to make the attempt ended up being turned into toads. Forever.
But maybe friendship can be the most powerful magic of all…
With action-packed adventure, a coven of quirky witchlings, Claribel A. Ortega’s signature humor, and girl-power vibes, you won’t be able to put down this middle-grade Latine witch story, perfect for fans of Amari and the Night Brothers or Harry Potter.
Hi Claribel, thanks so much for talking to We Need Diverse Books! Tell us about Witchlings and where the idea came from.
Witchlings was one of those ideas that came to me in the form of the first line. From there, I started building the idea out using inspiration from books I’d grown up with and the river towns in the Hudson Valley which the world of the Twelve Towns is based on. The story is about 12-year-old Seven Salazar, an overachieving witch who is sorted into the coven of unwanted witches called Spares along with her bully Valley and the quirky new girl in town Thorn. When her coven circle doesn’t close and she’s about to lose her magic altogether, she invokes the Impossible Task–a magical trial that will allow her coven to keep their powers if they can defeat the legendary Nightbeast monster. If they fail, they get turned into toads! It’s all very dramatic.
Tell us about Seven Salazar?
Seven is a giant nerd, plant enthusiast, self-assured and super smart. She is also working through some of her issues, like being overly judgmental of people, and not asking for help when she needs it, because she’s used to being self-reliant. She’s a kid who loves music, books (her favorite books being an in-world YA series called Witches of Heartbreak Cove) and is determined and hardworking.
Seven thinks she may lose her best friend during the Black Moon Ceremony, but it turns out she gained two in Thorn La Roux and Valley Pepperhorn. Talk about how the difference between having no friends and two who believe in you is immense.
Having even one friend can change your entire world, especially in middle school! It can be so hard to navigate life and when you don’t have any friends to lean on…the challenges become that much harder. Feeling alone or misunderstood is awful but having just one person who believes in you can make all the difference. I also think there’s something really special about having a small circle of friends. There’s a deep bond that’s formed when there’s only the two or three of you that nobody else seems to understand. You sort of create your own world with inside jokes and your own language based on shared interests and stories that only you know about, and it feels so safe and wonderful. Especially when I was around twelve, the Witchlings’ age, it was so exciting and fun to find those people who I could really connect with. When you find friends like the Witchlings, friendship can feel like an adventure.
Witchlings tackles several weighty but important issues such parental abuse. This leads Seven to make some difficult decisions, even if it means losing the trust of someone else. This book doesn’t box kids in, but rather exposes them to many adult situations, adding such depth of character. To me, that’s great middle grade. Is that ability to treat kids with the respect they so often deserve, one of the reasons you love writing to that age group?
I experienced a lot of not-so-great situations as a kid, and I think sometimes adults who didn’t go through that forget that not everyone gets through childhood without confronting really hard situations. They might feel like adult situations to many of us, but some children deal with them every day and we can’t forget about them. I write for all kids but especially with the kids who don’t get the privilege of a childhood where they just get to be a child in mind. Seeing things like abuse or poverty in books can help children who are going through that currently feel less alone, and for those who haven’t and hopefully never will, they learn empathy for others. Kids are humans, a bit smaller, but they’re still full human beings with convictions, worries, and hopes. They’re underestimated so much, and deserve our respect, care, and guidance. If I can give them even a tiny bit of that with my books, I’ll be happy.
Much like in your own real life Latine community, there is contextual internal intolerance that Seven and her friends have to deal with from the other witches/houses. Talk about having to deal with prejudice coming from within your own community and if it did, how did it influence this story?
I’m so glad you asked this because Witchlings is very much a story inspired by the feeling of not belonging anywhere. One of the places I pulled that theme from was my own experience as a diaspora writer. I grew up in NYC but had a very sheltered childhood steeped in Dominican culture. I didn’t speak English when I started school and was dancing merengue before first grade. But as much as I tried to fit in as I got older, I was never fully accepted anywhere I went. Dominicans would tell me I was a gringa, or white girl, and white Americans would call me Spanish or Mexican but never, ever American. I felt like I wasn’t wanted by my own community because I wasn’t born in the same place as my parents, and I didn’t belong in the country I was born in. So, what was left for me? I had to carve out my own space, find community with people who did accept me and eventually I began exploring that feeling of being anchorless in my writing.
Being a Spare witch in Witchlings means you’re unwanted, and that you don’t belong anywhere, but you’re not alone. You have a coven; that’s your home if you make it one, and that’s what I had to do as a diaspora writer: create my own home. By the way, Dominicans now love to tell me how proud they are that I didn’t forget my roots, so, things have come full circle.
Talk about how important it is, especially as a marginalized author, the message of never giving up, no matter the odds, and how inspiring that is to younger marginalized readers out there.
When you start out on your writing journey, especially in the very beginning, it can be very lonely. It helped me to read and listen to podcasts about other writers and how they reached their goals, but there are all these extra hurdles when you’re a marginalized author and it can be discouraging. It’s so important for me to share my own journey, both the disappointments and the successes, so that any writers who are looking to me for that same comfort know that it can be done, but it’s not easy. Painting a realistic picture of what publishing is like while being encouraging can be a hard balancing act but above all, I like to remind people our stories are important. Our voices are needed now more than ever. Somebody out there needs your story, and if you keep the people you are writing for at the center of everything you do, it will fuel you to keep going.
Your next book is a middle grade graphic novel called Frizzy. What can you tell us about that book, and what was it like working with artist Rose Bousamra?
Frizzy is a book all about the complexities of hair in the Dominican community specifically but can extend to many other communities as well. It’s the story of 12-year-old Marlene who has to straighten her hair every weekend but is beginning to feel like she might be happier wearing her natural curls.
There’s a lot of resistance to that in some Dominican households, and I wanted to explore not just the roots of that resistance but what we can do to help children undo it and the trauma that comes with it. Working with Rose and our editor Kiara was an amazing experience. Rose really did the heavy lifting as the artist and I’m so grateful I was able to work with someone as talented and kind as they are. Kiara is a superstar editor and FirstSecond is lucky to have her.
Like everyone else, we can’t wait for the Ghost Squad film. Understanding that these things move VERY slowly, are there any updates you can tell us?
I wish I had updates for you all! But I unfortunately don’t. The moment I know anything I’m allowed to share; I will of course share on social media.
For readers who enjoyed Witchlings, what other authors or books would you recommend?
A few of my favorite authors that fans of Witchlings would enjoy are Justin Reynolds, Julie Abe, Julian Randall, Amanda Foody, B.B. Alston, and Karen Strong!
Finally, if you were participating in the Black Moon Ceremony, which coven would you like to be a part of?
I could fit into so many of them, but I knew immediately I’d either be Goose House or House of Stars, and ultimately, I think House of Stars fits me best!
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.
Steve Dunk was born on Vancouver Island, British Columbia and now lives near a lake just outside of Toronto, spending his days obsessing over most things in geek culture, but mostly just trying to drink coffee and read in peace. He’s been blogging for various sites for as long as he can remember, focusing on the big three, movies, books, and music. His reading tastes stick pretty close to Young Adult but occasionally ventures outside enjoying middle grade, new adult, and adult as well. Fantasy, sci-fi, speculative, romance, contemporary…he loves it all. He reviews books and interviews authors on his podcast, Everything is Canon, over at Cinelinx.com with a focus on BIPOC/LGBTQIA+ authors and allyship. He doesn’t like sports, has lots of Star Wars books, and has two dogs. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.