Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega, 256 pp, RL 4
Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega
Cover art by Lorena Alvarez
Review Copy from Scholastic Press
Ortega's debut novel is a kaleidoscopically vibrant piñata of a novel that is filled to bursting with fantastic delights for readers to discover. Set in St. Augustine, Florida, main character Lucely Luna is the daughter of the town's ghost tour operator, Simon. While her dad's business is lagging, Lucely's days (and nights) are filled with the ghosts. She has the ability to see and communicate with the ghosts of her relatives and they have the ability to eat real food and even pinch her cheeks and throw chancla across the room to make a point. When the ghosts aren't in human form, they take the form of fireflies, residing in mason jars hanging from a willow tree in the front yard of the Luna home.
As Halloween, and the town's massive celebration approaches, Lucley is shaken when her the ghost of beloved grandma, Mamá, goes silent. When other strange and disturbing events follow, Lucely enlists her best friend Syd Faires, granddaughter of Babette, proprietor of Babette's Baubles, an occult shop, and owner of an impressive, secret, library of books on magic. Learning about Las Brujas Moradas (the Purple Coven) and their persecution, first in Spain during the Inquisition and then later in their new home, St. Augustine, the girls decide to explore Babette's library for El Libro de Lobos, their written record of all the spells and knowledge they possessed, hoping to wake Mamá. When Lucely and Syd unknowingly recite a spell that unleashes malevolent spirits of St. Augustine, they get to work on building ghost traps, testing them out at the ancient cemeteries all over town. Unfortunately, they don't work. Fortunately, Babette and her herd of cats, all named after characters from the movie Goonies, join the battle, which culminates in a thunderous, nail biter of a battle on Halloween night.
It's a challenge to capture all the vivid details, descriptions, pop culture and literary references, and love for family that emanates off the page of this dynamic novel, but Lorena Alvarez's cover illustration is perfectly positioned to give readers a very idea what they are in for - although, Ortega, who is a fan of the show Stranger Things and has an obsession with eighties pop culture, delivers some very suspenseful, supernatural moments in Ghost Squad. Lucely is Dominican American and Ortega generously seasons her novel with seamlessly integrated Spanish words and phrases (seriously, how did I NOT know the word chancla? That said, a HUGE thank you to Ortega for introducing it to me as it made for many hilarious conversations with my students and chanclas and the throwing thereof) and mouthwatering Dominican delicacies. Also a fan of magic, references to Harry Potter are perfectly placed and Babette's dwelling is a magical location that will long linger in my memory, especially the perilous approach to her house that requires visitors to either row across an alligator infested swamp or take their chances on a foot bridge, enchanted to look like a rickety, tumble-down risk. Once the action kicks off, and it does early on in the novel, Ghost Squad is a non-stop roller coaster ride of breathless ups and downs that will have readers barreling toward the stormy ending and, just like a real roller coaster ride, ready to turn around and get back on again.