Claribel A. Ortega writes middle-grade stories which center young latine kids and families. From her fantasy novels Ghost Squad and Witchlings, to the real-world focused graphic novel Frizzy, Claribel’s stories are charming, healing, and necessary.
Frizzy tells the story of how a young girl, Marlene, comes to appreciate her curly hair and Afro-Domincan roots. With the help of her best friend Camilla and her tía Ruby, she learns about why getting straight, blonde hair should lot be the sole ideal, and why that racist notion was passed down to her generationally. Frizzy is an important read for everyone, but especially for young latine kids who want to embrace their natural hair and themselves just the way they are.
Popverse had the opportunity to chat with Ortega about her inspiration for Frizzy, working with illustrator Rose Bousamra, and how she came to love herself & her Afro-Dominican curly hair.
Popverse: Frizzy has been out for almost a year now and has been the recipient of the Pura Belpré Award and most recently, an Eisner. Can you tell us a little bit about Frizzy and what its success has meant to you?
Claribel A. Ortega: Well, it's been a really surprising journey for me because Frizzy is, in a lot of ways, my most personal book. It’s very niche. It takes place in the Bronx. It centers around a Dominican-American family; it’s very specific to my childhood, to my upbringing.
[There are] things that a lot of people can relate to but that I felt in the moment were so specific to the way that I experienced my relationship with hair, within the Dominican community, with beauty standards. And you know, you have a very personal relationship with how you feel about your own appearance, right? So when you write that story and when you write all of the roots of those insecurities, it can be really affirming and surprising to see other people relate to it so much.
But I don't think I understood the scale in which people were going to relate to it. When it came to Frizzy, I was just writing something from my heart. There are scenes taken directly from my childhood. The moment where Marlene gets tape put in her hair by the bullies— that literally happened to me in fifth grade. It was one of those moments that I [will] never forget. You never forget things that happened to you as a kid.
But I took that, and I put it in a book and I sort of tried to process all of those things through my writing. I never imagined that it was going to resonate the way that it did. I think we all felt like Frizzy was special as we were working on it. But there's no way to know how the public is gonna react to it, right?
So it's been an incredible ride for me and Rose [Bousamra] too. This was Rose's very first book, the illustrator of Frizzy. So it's been a wild ride. It's been amazing.
I know you said that a lot of moments stick with you when growing up. And I think that's true for the mom as well in Frizzy. You get to see the generational impact of certain ideas that then get translated down. It was so nice to just see the relationship between Marlene, her mom, and Tia Ruby. That really stuck out to me and I laughed and I cried and I enjoyed the graphic novel a lot.
Why did you decide to open up with the quinceañera scene?
So that quince scene was very much also pulled from my own childhood. My oldest sister had a huge quince. I believe she had a traditional Sweet 16 actually. But I just remember it being such a big deal, and I think of special events, especially when you're younger — But even as we grow into adults, everything is sort of amplified in that moment.
If you're feeling good about yourself, you're excited to go. You're feeling good. So for me growing up whenever there was a wedding or a quince or like a big birthday party, any insecurities that I was having about myself were [magnified] 10x, because they're gonna take pictures. My family was going to make fun of me if there was something wrong with my hair or my dress or something.
So everything felt like I was under a magnifying glass, and I thought [the quince scene] was a really good way to show what [Marlene] was going through. She had to get her hair done all over again, and it showed the struggle [that] she couldn't even have fun and dance without worrying about her hair getting messed up. And it's so frustrating because all she wants to do is play with her cousins and have a fun time and be a kid, and yet she's reduced to her appearance. I think [the quince scene] was the perfect moment to show that pressure.
Did you always know that you wanted to be an author?
Obviously I knew you could be an author because I was a big reader growing up. I've always loved to write, but I didn't understand how the profession of being an author worked. And so I never really felt like I could pursue it even though books have always been my biggest obsession. I used to write poetry, short stories. It felt like second nature to me to be writing all the time.
Even now, I finish a big project, and I just want to keep writing. Not because I'm a workaholic (even though I am a little bit). But it's because that's what I'm used to. It's how I express myself. [Writing] is one of the things that I do that makes me feel happy and fulfilled since before I knew what that was. So I guess deep down, I've always wanted to be an author. Once I figured out like, 'Oh, I can do this' then nothing could keep me from trying my hardest.
But before that, I felt like all authors looked like R.L. Stein. I didn't know about brown girls writing and writing about stuff that I write about especially. And even when I did try to get into creative writing at my college, I was rejected from the creative writing program.
And like, now looking back, I actually just had lunch with my creative writing professor, and she was like, 'Well, the people who ran those programs were all only into literary fiction, right?' And what I was writing without realizing it was kid lit. And [the creative writing program] was like 'This is not good.' And when I look back on that writing in notebooks, I'm like, 'It wasn't not good. It just wasn't the specific thing that you were looking for.'
So there's been a lot of hurdles because of representation and there’s been a lot of coming up against these walls of people telling me I can't because they think only “serious writing” is good writing. It was a journey to get here. It wasn't very linear. But once I figured it out, it was like, 'Yes, oh my God, this is what I was made to do. This is what I've always been meant to do.' It just took me a little bit to figure it out.
And I feel so impressed by people who are in high school who know about the publishing process. New authors now who are twenty-two and published because they've been trying to get published since they were sixteen-seventeen years old. Like, you guys are incredible.
What advice would you give those young kids that know about the publishing world already but are still trying to get published?
I would never discourage anyone from doing it, but I would say don't rush. Take your time with it, live your life because it is a lot of pressure. Obviously everybody's different, different people have different maturity levels depending on what they've been through in life. So age is not the only defining factor when it comes to whether or not you're ready for something. I also do think that the publishing industry isn't easy, and my biggest concern for a young person getting into the industry would be the amount of pressure, hard work and rejection and disappointment and how that could affect them growing up.
So I would say don't rush, definitely stay in the space, learn about it, and keep writing. You can be in the community without being published right away.
And don’t put those arbitrary 'I need to be published by the time I'm eighteen' deadlines on yourself because if it doesn't happen, you're just gonna feel like you're a failure, and you're not a failure at all. Give yourself time to bloom as a writer.
Also, I would say be careful about the advice you get from TikTok because there's a lot on there.
That leads me to my next question. I was wondering: how has being chronically online helped or hindered Frizzy’s success, but also just your experience with writing & in publishing in general?
Well, I think I've gotten a lot of benefits from being on social media. Kiara basically found me because of Twitter. And, I found my agent through DVPit, which was a Twitter based contest. There's benefits and drawbacks obviously. Social media can be a huge distraction, not just in terms of time, but in terms of comparison. I think it's very easy for you to go down the rabbit hole of 'Oh my God, these people are doing A, B, and C with their career. I'm not good enough,' and letting that sort of take you off course of the only thing you can control, which is your writing.
I think the best advice I ever got from my career was from Zoraida Cordova. And it was that the only thing you control is your writing, so write a good fucking book (sorry for the f-word).
But that helped me because I've never been huge on comparing myself to other people, but sometimes you can't help that, you know, when you're sort of presented with all these highlight reels of what everybody is achieving and accomplishing all the time and you're in the depths of trying to do like a really sticky revision, it can get to you psychologically.
So I think social media as an author has been super beneficial for me, and it's also been something that I've had to fight to make sure that it doesn't take over my brain space. If it wasn't for me already having a platform for my debut Ghost Squad, I think that the book wouldn’t have done as well as it did because the pandemic hit, right?
There were a lot of plans and things that we were gonna do for the book that fell through because we couldn't do them anymore because the bookstores weren't open. Having that support of people online bolstered me, helped me to feel a little bit less discouraged and helped the book to continue to have a life even though it was probably one of the hardest times to debut ever.
That's so hard. I’m sorry that you had to go through pandemic times.
I think social media was how I realized that Frizzy was gonna be a big deal. I kept sending Kiara [Valdez] all these TikToks. I was crying, I was staying up late, seeing all these really strong reactions to the book. And that's when I realized, this is like hitting in a way that is bigger than what I expected it to be.
We love BookTok. What would you tell young Claribel who had frizzy hair today?
One of the things that keeps getting repeated in Frizzy is that beauty doesn't only look one way. And I think I had that idea stuck in my head a lot when I was younger. Because of my family, because I grew up around and in a salon, literally, my mom had a salon in the basement of our house. And all of the protagonists in TV, shows and movies all looked a certain way. And I thought that I couldn't be beautiful because I didn't look like them.
And I would just tell myself - you're beautiful the way that you are. Beauty has so many different faces, and one day you're going to show people that yourself. It took me a very, very long time to sort of accept myself for who I am and believe that I had the potential to feel beautiful and feel good about myself. It took me up until I was a full grown adult, and I really wish that I had been kinder to my younger self.
And I would just tell myself to be nicer to myself. It's the world that's crap sometimes, but it's not you.
I love that. Finally, here at Popverse we celebrate the best in TV, movies and comics. And I was wondering what latine TV, movies or comics are you really enjoying right now but that you're not working on?
I watch a lot of old things in the latine space. I rewatch Yo soy Betty, la fea every single fall. It has that feeling about it because she's starting a new job. So it feels like starting school. In terms of things that I'm reading right now, I'm really excited for Saving Chupie, which is a graphic novel about the chupacabra by Amparo Ortiz. I'm very, very excited for that book. I've always been fascinated by the chupacabra. So I'm gonna be all about it and he's like really cute on the cover which makes me so excited.