For this reader, a fantastical world is more alluring when it allows me to suspend disbelief as elements of our real world are woven seamlessly with the fantastical and magical circumstances presented in the story. Claribel A. Ortega’s Witchlings offers readers exactly that, elevating the experience to new heights by creating the magical canon of The Twelve Towns, the major setting in Witchlings, based on the Spanish language and mythical beings that will be familiar to Latinx readers.
What readers will experience when immersing themselves in the world of Witchlings
A Sense of Belonging
Wouldn’t it be magnificent if there was a club, a hobby, a group, for every one of us? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know with absolute certainty that you belong somewhere? But reality is hard, and hits kids especially hard, when our interests or personalities don’t align with any of the established school, community or social groups available. Author Claribel Ortega, places this slice of reality into the lives of her main characters within the first few pages of this book. On the most important evening of a witchling’s life, the night where they are sorted into covens, Seven, Valley and Thorn, are coven-less. They are categorized as Spares, and let’s be honest, being an understudy, an extra, in the real world or a spare in the town of Ravenskill, is no one’s ultimate dream. Through the main characters, readers will explore two different paths– accepting fate as it is dealt or believing that regardless of how it’s always been in a community or society, one can create a safe space and find others, though odd as the choices may seem at first, to welcome into that space.
The Fallout of Avoiding Confrontations
Inventing the intentions of others is a default young and old turn to, rather than braving a confrontation that could clarify for all concerned the impact that words and actions have had. Seven believes she has been the victim of bullying because of her interactions with Valley and the outcomes she’s suffered. She doesn’t allow herself to consider Valley’s perspective; maybe Valley doesn’t pick up on social cues, maybe her way of engaging with peers isn’t what Seven has experienced before; considerations that might have created an opportunity for Seven to share how Valley’s actions have made her feel and also allow Valley to disclose her intent, explain, maybe even apologize. When Seven invokes the Impossible Task as a way to avoid her fate as a Spare, she commits not only herself but Valley who she hates, and Thorn who she barely knows, to become a team and endanger their lives. Readers will feel just as squeamish as Seven does at the prospect of depending on her tormentor to complete the Impossible Task and be part of a coven. Readers will also witness what we misconstrue when we default to inventing others and their intentions. Isn’t this at the root of so many middle school real-life dramas?
Latinx readers will feel like Claribel Ortega’s fantasy world was built with them as the intended dwellers- with spells like zarpazo,volcán and machete, to name just a few, and Cucos, the night monster that will come and get you in Latin American countries if you don’t fall asleep when your told, as one of the monstruos the witchlings have to battle. Readers who are not Latinx won’t feel unwelcomed, many magical book worlds use Latin as the language of their incantations, and with the amount of cognates shared between Spanish and English, they might understand exactly what the volcán, veloz, and other spells do!
The representation of strong Latinx female main characters amplifies Latinx voices and their right to occupy space, be the heroes, and also offer readers from other cultural and racial backgrounds the opportunity to center their attention on kids they share the world with. As readers get to know Seven and her family, they will also develop kinship and empathy for what they have in common.
Learning to Lead by Being Led
Seven is a natural leader and believes she is entitled to take control and make decisions for the group, without conferring with her team. She definitely does not want to give any leadership opportunities to her nemesis, Valley. As their plans to complete The Impossible Task fail, Seven begins to reflect on how Thorn and Valley’s knowledge and abilities could have created successes instead of failures. Maturity plays a big role in how Seven is able to cede control to the girls and be led by them, and also in how Valley and Thorn patiently wait for Seven to trust them and in how they communicate their frustrations without hurting each other’s feelings. A great model for young readers to follow as they begin to see these leadership dynamics develop within their friendship circles.
At any age, being the confidant of a victim of abuse entails holding that person’s story and trust protectively. For kids, learning that a classmate, a friend, or a family member is suffering abuse puts them at the crossroads Seven finds herself in when she witnesses Valley’s father being physically and emotionally abusive towards her. Seven wants to help Valley, to keep her safe, but she also does not want to betray Valley’s trust. Ortega skillfully navigates Seven’s decision making process, her telling a trusted adult about Valley’s situation, and Valley’s response to Seven’s decision to not honor her wish for secrecy. Kids often trust their friends with this type of personal suffering before they trust adults, reading about characters their age doing what’s best is an important step towards knowing what to do.
The Thrill of a Whodunit Adventure
Once The Impossible Task is invoked the girls only have 3 weeks to accomplish it. When a witchling becomes a Spare they are doomed to a life of servitude and the loss of magic. When a witchling invokes The Impossible Task, which doesn’t happen often, the consequence of failing is harsh. For Seven, Valley and Thorn, the outlook is grim, if they fail they will be turned into toads, forever. Ortega’s Spares mirror the creation and treatment of marginalized communities in the real world, giving readers an opportunity to explore this issue as they begin to empathize with the girls and root for their successful completion of what, by its very name seems impossible.
As the Witchlings spend time researching in the library, around town, and putting plans into action they learn that each has an ability needed to the success of their task, and success is possible but only if they learn to trust each other and work as a team that values the individual while working for their collective goal. As they analyze what they observe and research, as they go over their encounters with monstruos and their failed plans, they begin to notice things that do not fit with what they’ve learned of the history of their town, their town’s leadership, and the behaviors of Cucos and Nightbeasts. Claribel Ortega leaves readers a trail of breadcrumbs that isn’t obvious, yet adds up as the story progresses and reaches its climax. Readers will enjoy putting these clues together and coming up with their own list of suspects and motives, add the additional exhilarating element of a countdown, and readers will be staying up past their bedtime!
I hope that we have many more installments of Seven, Valley and Thorn’s stories in The Twelve Towns, and I am sure young readers will be hoping for the same as they fly through the pages of Claribel Ortega’s Witchlings.
Your readers will probably want to find out which coven they belong to! Take the Black Moon Ceremony Quiz to find out!
Ro Menendez is a picture book collector and teacher-librarian in Mesquite, TX. After thirteen years in the bilingual classroom she decided to transition to the library where she could build relationships with ALL readers on her campus. She enjoys the daily adventure of helping young readers develop their reader identity by connecting them with books that speak to their hearts and sense of humor! Ro’s favorite pastimes include reading aloud to children and recommending books to anyone who asks! She is also very passionate about developing a diverse library collection where all readers learn about themselves and those around them. You can find her on Twitter at @romenendez14.