In Ghost Squad (Scholastic Press), 12-year-old Lucely Luna’s primary goal is to save her home, in part because the ghosts of her extended family, with whom she’s close, manifest as fireflies in the willow tree out back. Family, both biological and found, plays a major role in this supernatural romp, but, as author Claribel A. Ortega explains, the story is also about dealing with loss. “I lost my brother to cancer in 2011, and it was very difficult for me. I was looking for a way to navigate grief.”
Ortega’s first book, a YA novel about a witch who was “sort of the sloppy hero that I imagined in my head, who was a manifestation of what I was going through at the time,” didn’t sell, though it did land Ortega her first agent in 2016 and started her on the road to writing Ghost Squad.
“I’ve always loved to write,” Ortega says. “I started writing poetry and songs about whoever I had a crush on, and that quickly moved on to short stories for my own entertainment.”
Ortega majored in journalism at SUNY Purchase after she didn’t get into the undergrad creative writing program there. She spent some time as a reporter for the school paper and the Rivertowns Enterprise in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., where she covered a little bit of everything, including human interest stories and local politics. After graduating in 2010, she went on to work for Creative Arts Agency in New York City.
It was during that period that Ortega settled on her new goal. “I’ve been working toward publication since 2014,” she says. “I tried everything from Pitch Wars and #DVPit, to cold querying and going to conferences to pitch to agents in person.” After her first agent didn’t work out, Ortega signed with Suzie Townsend of New Leaf Literary, and in 2017 she sold Ghost Squad to Jeffrey West at Scholastic.
In writing Ghost Squad, Ortega took inspiration from her Dominican heritage and her love of ’80s pop culture to craft the sort of story she’d always wanted to read. “As a kid, reading and watching movies, I never saw little brown or Black girls like me take part in these adventures,” she says. “I wanted my characters to have free rein, and have a Black Dominican main character enjoying all of the really cool things I never got to do.”
Though Ortega started out writing YA, it didn’t take her long to gravitate toward younger readers. “Ghost Squad’s voice is definitely middle grade, and it came so much easier to me,” she says. “It felt like home.”
With Ghost Squad’s publication coming during the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ortega and Scholastic had to make some adjustments. “I was fortunate enough to be part of the Scholastic Book Fair, which gave so many kids access to the book,” she says. The official publication date was in April, while the book fair version was released in January. Scholastic also took steps to promote the book virtually, by way of a website and app called Home Base.
“I was part of the first virtual book tour on Home Base,” Ortega says. “I got to play games with the kids, and they could ask me questions. Scholastic is like a dream for my writing.”
Ortega considers herself a full-time writer, but she still finds time for several other industry-related pursuits. Along with fellow author Kat Cho, she runs the Write or Die podcast, which examines how writers, particularly writers from marginalized communities, break into publishing and get their first book deals. “We talk to everyone, and it’s a way to see beyond the veil of publishing and that it does take people a lot longer than it seems,” Ortega says. “It’s a way for writers to feel less alone on their journey.”
Meanwhile, Ortega also has a small consultation business, GifGrrl, which started as a service creating book trailers and GIFs for authors and has evolved to help them with social media and visibility.
Ortega has no immediate plans to revisit Ghost Squad, although she hasn’t ruled out expanding the setting with stories told from other points of view. “I have a middle grade graphic novel coming out from First Second in 2022,” she says. “It’s called Frizzy, and it’s about a Dominican girl who’s going on a journey to love her natural curls. They’re a big deal in Dominican culture, so I’m excited for this.”
Ortega will also appear in several upcoming anthologies, including Reclaim the Stars—a collection of Latinx-focused science fiction and fantasy tales edited by Zoraida Córdova—and This Is Our Rainbow, a middle grade collection of LGBTQ stories edited by Katherine Locke and Nicole Melleby.
Meanwhile, Ortega hopes that readers will find a sense of adventure in Ghost Squad. “I hope it makes them laugh,” she says. “I hope my writing helps people through hard times and it’s something they can come back to when they need a sense of comfort.”