Claribel Ortega is the author of the book Ghost Squad, a mix of Ghostbusters, Stranger Things and Coco all blended into one. (Picture courtesy of Claribel Ortega, cover art courtesy of Lorena Alvarez Gómez)

(Editor’s note: NonDoc’s Author Umbrella interviews up-and-coming writers, particularly authors of color, authors of disability and LGBTQ authors. The interviews have been transcribed and lightly edited for length and clarity.)

To launch NonDoc’s new Author Umbrella series, I interviewed Claribel Ortega, author of Ghost Squad. Her debut middle-grade novel will be released by Scholastic on April 7, 2020. She also co-hosts the Write or Die podcast with Kat Cho, and she is the owner of the small graphic design business GifGrrl and the GifGrrl shop, which creates apparel for writers and creatives.

Before Ortega’s interview, here is a synopsis of Ghost Squad:

Shortly before Halloween, Lucely Luna casts a spell with her best friend, Syd, and accidentally awakens a group of nasty spirits that wreak havoc through St. Augustine. Lucely and Syd must join forces with Syd’s witch grandmother, Babette, and her tubby tabby, Chunk, to reverse the curse, save the town and rescue the firefly spirits of Lucely’s family members before it’s too late.

On Twitter, you are the creator of viral GIFs. So, if you could pick one GIF to sum up Ghost Squad, what would it be?

I love this question! If I could pick one GIF to describe GHOST SQUAD, it would be this one from COCO!

Ghost Squad has been referred to as Coco meets Stranger Things with a hint of Ghostbusters. But in addition to being a fun, supernatural fantasy rooted in Dominican folklore, it is also a story about family. How have your own experiences shaped the familial dynamics of your writing?

Family is so important to me, and I was lucky enough to grow up with a really big, loud family. A lot of the scenes with Lucely’s family were inspired by my own, both the funny moments and the touching. (Tía Milagros, Mamá Teresa and Primo Benny are all named after my own family members!)

I tried to channel the happiness I feel at being surrounded by my family, and some of the annoying moments too — haha — but mostly I just wanted to pay tribute to the people who’ve helped shape me.

I also wanted to show that friends can be family too, and that all families look different. After all, most of Lucely’s family in the book are ghosts!

One of the main themes of Ghost Squad is loss. What about Lucely’s journey do you hope resonates with young readers who may have experienced the loss of a loved one themselves?

Lucely deals with grief because of her grandmother and wanting to bring her spirit back, but also because of her absent mother.

Grief isn’t always about death, and it can be easy for us to find fault in our own behaviors when dealing with loss, even if it’s at the hands of something we have no control over. I never had to deal with death as a kid, but I think it’s important for [young readers] to see [grief portrayed] in ways that are sensitive to where they are in their life journey. I wanted to show anyone who reads Ghost Squad that loss is hard, but there is happiness to be found even after something ends.

I also wanted to show, through Lucely’s strength, her optimism and her perseverance, that any of my readers can get through it, too. The most important thing though, is that those who leave us are always with us. That’s the heart of Ghost Squad.

Our loved ones live on in our actions and our memories. We don’t have to forget them or let them go, but instead honor them and what they contributed to our lives.

Okay, so I have to know. Is Chunk — a tubby tabby, as she’s described in the book — based on a real pet?

So, Chunk is… named after one of the characters in one of my favorite movies as a kid, (and also Syd’s favorite movie in the book), The Goonies. Syd’s witch grandmother, Babette, has many cats, and each one is named for a Goonie, but Chunk is the star of this book by far.

From seeing Ghost Squad grow from an idea to words on a page to an actual published book, what has been your favorite aspect of the writing/publishing process?

Reading the book back and realizing it’s not terrible was a great one, but now that people are getting their hands on advanced reader copies, seeing their reactions has been surreal, amazing and so exciting!

You’ve mentioned the book includes GHOST CHANCLAS. I’ve been told chanclas are weapons of torment, and it makes sense that they would start haunting people. So for the question, who wields the ghost chanclas, and should we be afraid? 

Tía Milagros is the ghost chancla wielder, and you should only be afraid if your room is not impeccably spotless. So, you know, better get to cleaning!

What elements of Ghost Squad do you think would appeal to Oklahoma City readers?

I think family and friendship are things that are universally important, so I think Oklahoma City readers will love those themes — and also, who doesn’t love a fun adventure? With so much happening in the world, it can be overwhelming, and although Ghost Squad does deal with some pretty heavy topics, it’s also a fun, funny adventure with ghosts, fat cats and delicious Caribbean food!

Ghost Squad can be preordered at BUYGHOSTSQUAD.COM.