Claribel A. Ortega is the author of Ghost Squad and Witchlings, a middle-grade fantasy novel about three young witches who must complete an impossible task to keep their magic--and avoid being turned into toads. The second book in the series, The Golden Frog Games, will be released next year. We loved Witchlings's whimsy, strong sense of place, and characters, so we were thrilled to interview Claribel A. Ortega for this month's feature!
Rapunzel Reads: The world of Witchlings blends magic with technology in a way that feels vivid and utterly believable, full of quirky details and beautiful imagery. How did you go about creating this setting? Do you have a favorite part about it?
Claribel A Ortega: When I started the world building process for Witchlings I knew I wanted it to feel like a place that was not that far removed from our own world. The use of technology was deliberate in that sense. It’s such a huge part of our everyday life that I didn’t feel it would be grounded in our world without it. I also saw it as an opportunity to create fun names and interesting gadgets, although it was a challenge sometimes. The more tiny details you can put into your world building the more fleshed out and immersive it can feel and that was really my goal with Witchlings. My favorite part about it is probably how it takes so many of the real life places I love and gives it a magic twist. The Twelve Towns themselves are inspired by
Author photo credit: Clarinet Orchestra
RR: What inspired Witchlings?
CAO: Witchlings was inspired by a few different things but I think at its core, it’s about my experience as a second generation immigrant and someone in the diaspora. I have felt like a Spare, someone who doesn’t belong anywhere, so many times in my life and I wanted to write a story that reflected that feeling of otherness and how it can both hold you back and make you special.
RR: Do you have any tips for an aspiring writer?
CAO: Read a lot, and not just the kinds of books you hope to write but everything you can get your hands on. Know that being an author takes a lot of patience so don’t set arbitrary deadlines for yourself if it’s going to be unhealthy (which it probably is.) It’s hard to hear but there’s really no external urgency there for when you get an agent or when you get published so pushing yourself before the book is ready is never a great idea. Always vet your advice and make sure it’s coming from someone who has a career you’d hope to have. Don’t compare yourself to other writers and avoid being on twitter as much as possible haha.
RR: All the characters in Witchlings are relatable and flawed, and feel completely real. Do you have a favorite among them? If so, why?
CAO: Thank you! The Nightbeast. Just kidding although, it does have a fanbase. I don’t think I could pick from among the Witchlings because they’re all special to me so I will say The Oracle who only shows up for a chapter but we get to know a bit more in book 2!
RR: Valley is a particularly interesting character, and one of my personal favorites--Thorn's understanding of her changes drastically over the course of the book, particularly surrounding the subplot with her father. What inspired Valley, and what were the challenges in writing that arc?
CAO: Valley is a fan favorite which makes me so happy because I adore her as well. Valley’s arc was inspired by my own experiences with abuse as a kid (although I like to clarify, my father is great and nothing like hers.) There were so many times where I felt there was something wrong with me because I was so angry as a kid until I realized it’s normal for kids experiencing abuse to act out in other ways. Writing Valley was like sending kid me a hug from the future, both to let her know things would be okay, that there was nothing wrong with me, and that it’s okay to speak up. I want any kid who needs that message to hear it, that’s my hope with her character. Of course writing about something so painful and personal was rough at times, but thankfully I had Seven and Thorn there to help me get through it.
RR: What books inspired you when you were growing up?
CAO: So many! My biggest inspirations and the books that made me want to become an author were the Goosebumps books, Babysitters Club and Lord of the Rings.
RR: What was your favorite part about writing Witchlings?
CAO: It’s impossible to choose because I love writing about this world so much, but I’ll definitely say the characters. I’ve come to know them and care for them and worry for what I’ll need to put them through in future books. I’ve also really enjoyed creating the world of the Twelve Towns and the history that goes along with it.