UNEXPECTED OUTCOMES: Claribel Ortega ’10
Two Authors Find Their Groove
Neither Nora Raleigh Baskin ’83 nor Claribel Ortega ’10 set out to write for young audiences. Baskin, a literature major, and Ortega, who studied journalism, were both attracted to Purchase for its creative energy, the seemingly unconventional environment, and the freedom to flourish as they explore their love of writing.
They both found validation—they had worthwhile stories to tell and the right mix of talent, work ethic, and chutzpah to succeed. Through perseverance, persistence, and just doing the work, aka “butt in chair,” both have written their way into readers’ hearts using voices that speak to middle graders and teens.
Claribel Ortega is busy.
She’s been on tour promoting her second middle-grade novel, Witchlings. Released on April 5, it hit the New York Times Bestseller list the very next week.
She contributed a short story to the anthology Reclaim the Stars: 17 Tales Across Realms & Space and a story about superhero Ms. America Chavez for Marvel’s Voices: Comunidades #1, published last February and December, respectively. Frizzy, her middle-grade graphic novel, will release in October. And she was on deadline for another manuscript during her book tour.
Preceding this activity was the success of her first novel, Ghost Squad, a New York Times Bestselling middle-grade story currently becoming a movie directed by Brenda Chapman, the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year for Brave.
Despite everything, the author seemed calm on a recent Zoom call. The bustle of an in-person book tour is a far cry from the release of Ghost Squad in the early days of the pandemic. “It’s a perfect storm of anxiety and excitement for me right now.”
Ortega fell in love with storytelling as a young child. Although she was an early reader herself, she credits her parents’ bedtime stories as the catalyst. Neither spoke English and with limited access to Spanish language books in the South Bronx in the 80s, they shared stories of their invention, with the same characters in different scenarios. “Those are cherished childhood memories that I have of them making stuff up, and me wanting to hear the same stories over and over again,” she recalls. Her Dominican heritage serves as inspiration and a through-line connecting her stories.
With no plan to become an author per se, Ortega brought her love of writing to Purchase via the journalism program. It combined her passion for writing of all kinds, stories, essays, and non-fiction, with her penchant for talking to people. “Purchase just seemed like a place that would foster my creativity,” she says. “It felt like a place where I could flourish, learn more about myself, and be around other students that were like-minded.” She fondly recalls being the editor for the notorious back page of the now-defunct student newspaper, The Purchase Independent.
A study abroad trip to the south of France would bring a defining moment, albeit a daunting one. “When you’re from the inner city, it’s a big deal to go 45 minutes outside of where you live, let alone to another country,” she remembers proudly. “It was the first time in my life that I set my mind to doing something that felt really outside of my comfort zone, and I did it.”
The courses offered were French and creative writing. She found the encouragement she needed to consider becoming an author. “I had professors tell me, ‘Hey, you’re actually really good at this; you should keep going.’ I felt encouraged, which really pushed me and stayed with me.”
Pitch to Publish
Ortega’s road to publishing was not linear and involved shelving projects in favor of others over seven years or so. Her big break came when she participated in #dvpitch, an annual pitching event on Twitter for self-identifying historically marginalized authors and illustrators without agents. It’s essentially a fast-track query process. With eight offers for representation by the end of the two-week decision period, she sold Ghost Squad in 2017, and it was published in 2020.
Writing for a young audience was never a conscious decision. “The ideas for stories come to me, and sometimes the voice determines what the story will be. It just so happened the voice was always a teenager or a middle-grade-aged student.” Her own experience with stories and characters as a youth had an impact. “That’s what stuck with me. I just really love the things that I watched when I was that age. And featured characters that were that age. I think my writing voice just really fits with that.”
Despite her success, Ortega never thought she would be an author. “I knew that I loved to write, but I saw myself maybe writing essays or short stories. But to think that I would be writing novels and writing series, or writing for Marvel—it’s nothing I could have ever anticipated. But I’m really happy that this is the turn that my life took.”
Claribel Ortega ’10