By Olivia Mules
Today we’re pleased to welcome Lisa Stringfellow to the WNDB blog to discuss A Comb of Wishes, which came out on February 8, 2022!
Ever since her mother’s death, Kela feels every bit as broken as the shards of glass, known as “mermaid’s tears,” that sparkle on the Caribbean beaches of St. Rita. So when Kela and her friend Lissy stumble across an ancient-looking comb in a coral cave, with all she’s already lost, Kela can’t help but bring home her very own found treasure.
Far away, deep in the cold ocean, the mermaid Ophidia can feel that her comb has been taken. And despite her hatred of all humans, her magic requires that she make a bargain: the comb in exchange for a wish.
But what Kela wants most is for her mother to be alive. And a wish that big will exact an even bigger price…
Tell me a little about your new book, A Comb of Wishes. What can readers expect? What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A Comb of Wishes is about a girl who loves her mother and would do anything to have her back. It’s a story about regret and making amends but mostly about love. I hope that readers will take away from it the feeling that the people we love are never really gone and that love endures.
Who was your favorite character to create and write lines for? What is your favorite line that they say or action that they do?
My favorite character to write is definitely Ophidia. When I was crafting the story, her character came to me first and most clearly. She has a righteous anger about the things that have been done to her in the past and I loved writing her dialogue and thoughts.
One of my favorite lines is when she is discussing with Kela the cost of making a wish.
“All things are within my power if you are willing to pay the price.” Ophidia reached to the seafloor then extended her hand toward Kela. She held a pebble. “Imagine this is a wish dropped in a pool. A small stone creates small ripples, and dropping a larger stone creates larger ripples. The consequence of magic is in proportion to its strength.”
Where did the inspiration initially come from for this book? How did you pick St. Rita for the setting?
My inspiration for this story came from thinking about two middle grade books I loved: The Tale of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler and Coraline by Neil Gaiman. I thought it would be interesting to write a scary and suspenseful mermaid story, and I had never read a story set in the Caribbean or that had a West Indian protagonist. This was before The Jumbies by Tracy Baptiste or Josephine Against the Sea by Shakirah Bourne had been published.
For the setting, I drew on my family’s culture. Kela lives in St. Rita, which is an island in the Caribbean that is inspired by Barbados where my father was born. I wanted the story to be rooted in the sounds, sights, smells, and tastes of the islands. When I was writing, I centered Kela’s experiences. Everything around her was normal and part of her everyday life. I didn’t want to write through the gaze of an outsider, but as someone who lives and breathes the culture and setting.
If you found a comb of your own and summoned a mermaid who offered you the same exchange Ophidia does, what would you wish for?
That would be so hard, but I think I would likely wish for the same thing as Kela, to have a loved one return. My father passed away shortly before my book was acquired for publication. He knew about it and I would love to be able to read it with him and talk about it.
Kela’s grief from losing her mother (and, of course, her love for her mother) takes center stage in this book and drives the plot of your book. What advice would you give to teens who are navigating their own grief and losses?
I think Kela’s coping mechanism in the book was to withdraw from her friends and family, and it is a very natural reaction. I would encourage children and teens facing similar grief to try to do the opposite. Be around people who love and support them. Find opportunities to talk about their feelings and their loss. Grief is a slow process and everyone experiences it differently, but it helps to be open with others and willing to accept support.
When you write, what is your favorite part of the writing process? Why?
My favorite part of the writing process is definitely revision. Drafting can be hard at times, but I get the most enjoyment from looking at words on the page and being able to shift and shape the ideas. Someone once described drafting as piling sand on a table and revision as building a sandcastle. That description resonates with me and describes what I most enjoy about writing.
This is the first middle grade book you have published. Did you encounter any challenges or unexpected surprises when writing a middle grade book?
When I first decided to pursue publication, I had to learn how the industry worked and to develop my craft as a writer. Even though I was a reader and a veteran English teacher, I soon found out that there were skills that I needed to develop. I sought out knowledge through workshops, conferences, and professional organizations. I joined critique groups and learned how to give and receive feedback. I looked for mentorships that would help me grow.
I think the other surprise that I learned is that publishing is a slow industry. My first draft of A Comb of Wishes was completed in 2014 and acquired in 2019. It will finally be on shelves this year in 2022! Persistence is key for writers!
Did you have to do any research for this book? If so, what was the most interesting thing you found out about?
I did research about many things, but when I decided that storytelling would be a significant element of the story, I researched storytellers and storytelling traditions in the Caribbean. That was when I first learned of the call and response format of “Crick, Crack” and it reminded me so much of other interactive relationships of Black culture, such as the back and forth between a minister and congregation in a church. I interviewed storyteller Diane Ferlatte and she gave me wonderful insight into being a storyteller and how they interact with listeners.
What advice would you give to other authors who want to write about characters with diverse lives and identities?
Representation is important but so is authenticity. My advice would be to write the story that only you can tell. Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I would extend that to encourage writers to look for those stories that are uniquely theirs to tell and that will allow them to share a piece of themselves with the world.
Do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming books or voices we should be reading?
There are so many wonderful books on the horizon that I’m looking forward to reading! I love ghost stories and can’t wait to read India Hill Brown’s latest book, The Girl in the Lake. Karen Strong’s forthcoming Black Southern Gothic novel Eden’s Everdark looks creepy and wonderful. Jamar J. Perry’s Cameron Battle and the Hidden Kingdoms is the kind of adventure book I would have loved as a kid.
If you could have your dream panel promoting A Comb of Wishes, what would it be about? What other authors and voices would you like to have on it alongside you?
I would love to see a panel on Black girls in middle grade fantasy. When I was a child, most books about characters that looked like me were contemporary or historical fiction, but the books I loved to read were fantasy. Now, there is so much more representation, but I still think Black girls have room to grow and shine in the genre.
Some authors who have written fantastic stories featuring #BlackGirlMagic are Tracey Baptiste, Justina Ireland, Eden Royce, India Hill Brown, and Shakirah Bourne. I’d love to be on a fantasy panel with them.
What question do you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
I wish I was asked what kind of stories I’m drawn to and want to tell.
I would say that I love fantasy and stories of magic and adventure. I don’t think there have been enough opportunities for Black authors to share stories that center Black and brown kids leading the charge, using magic, and saving the world. It’s a wonderful time in publishing now as more of these stories are coming out but there is so much ground to be covered. I’d love to see more retellings and fairytales that center Black kids. 12-year-old me would have loved to read these stories!
Can you share anything about any projects you are currently working on?
I’m currently working on my second middle grade book which will be another stand-alone fantasy novel. I like to call it my “princess in a tower” story, but it won’t be like other fairy tales readers might imagine.
My hope is that it will empower young readers to be brave and stand up for what is right.
Finally, what are each of your pronouns/how do you identify yourself? I want to make sure I am representing you properly!
Lisa Stringfellow writes middle grade fiction and has a not-so-secret fondness for fantasy with a dark twist. Growing up, she was a voracious reader, and books took her to places where her imagination could thrive. She writes for her twelve-year-old self, the kid waiting to be the brown-skinned hero of an adventure, off saving the world. Lisa’s work often reflects her West Indian and Black southern heritage. She received the inaugural Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Manuscript Award in 2019 for an earlier draft of A Comb of Wishes. Lisa is a middle-school teacher and lives in Boston, Massachusetts, with her children and two bossy cats.
Olivia Mules is currently pursuing her master’s degree in library and information science. Olivia’s goal is to work in academic librarianship and reference services with a focus on information literacy. Before starting her degree program, she was a special education teacher and taught math and science. Her favorite literary heroines are Elizabeth Bennet, Gemma Doyle, and Arya Dröttning. When Olivia is not doing schoolwork, she enjoys cooking, music, hikes with her wife and daughter, and drinking an inordinate amount of iced coffee.