Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Lisa Stringfellow!

It’s time to Kick Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Lisa Stringfellow, the author of

A COMB OF WISHES

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 beaches of St. Rita. But when she discovers a different kind of treasure, she accidentally summons an actual mermaid—the wrathful Ophidia.

Ophidia makes Kela a bargain: her ancient comb, in exchange for a wish. And though Kela knows that what she wants most is her mother back, a wish that big will exact a dangerous price…

Let’s talk to this wonderful author about her brilliant book!
This is Lisa. Everyone say, “Hi, Lisa!”

(Image credit: Carter Hasegawa)

Welcome to Kick-Butt Kidlit, Lisa! Tell us about yourself!

I write middle grade fiction and have a not-so-secret fondness for fantasy with a dark twist. I enjoy connecting to my West Indian and Black southern heritage in my writing. My debut fantasy A Comb of Wishes was released on February 8, 2022 by HarperCollins/Quill Tree Books. I’m also a middle school English teacher and have taught English for 28 years! I live in Boston, Massachusetts, with my children and bossy cat.

What was the inspiration behind A COMB OF WISHES?

My inspiration for this story came from thinking about two middle grade books I loved, The Tail of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler and Coraline by Neil Gaiman. Because of my West Indian heritage, I thought it would be interesting to write a mermaid story set in the Caribbean, and I imagined a brown-skinned mermaid who is a bit dangerous. As I delved into the characters, I knew the story would also touch on the topics of family, regret, love, and forgiveness.

Your book weaves folklore and fantasy around a story that’s also about navigating grief. How did you balance that combination of the fantastic and real-world elements?

Grief is a human emotion that we all experience. Books can be a safe way for children to see and process those feelings. I felt it was important to show a character dealing with these natural feelings of loss while also showing a loving community supporting her.

The story also involves magic. Sometimes adults dismiss fantasy as “fluff” or not “important” but fantasy often allows readers to make connections and process ideas in fresh ways. Magic can serve as a metaphor in these situations. In A Comb of Wishes, Kela has a chance to make a wish that, in her view, will fix everything and restore her world to the way she feels it should be. Having those types of feelings is very natural and relatable, but it also has consequences and delays her acceptance of her painful loss.

Sometimes adults hesitate to give kids books that deal with “heavy” topics. As a teacher, I’ve tried to convey to parents the importance of kids reading all types of books, including the sad ones. For some children who have experienced grief, reading a book can help them not feel alone. It can also help them think about and process their own feelings and build empathy towards others.

So absolutely true.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on A COMB OF WISHES?

First, I learned that sea glass is sometimes called “mermaid’s tears.” In an earlier draft, Kela collected shells, but I changed her hobby when I learned of the negative environmental impacts of shelling. I chose sea glass because it is essentially trash and removing it is not harmful to the marine environment. It was only after I made that change that I learned about the folklore that connected sea glass to mermaids.

Second, I discovered rich lore and traditions around mermaids and water spirits that exist outside of Europe and the popular culture depictions. Ophidia’s character is based on the West African water spirit Mami Wata who is often depicted holding a snake. Ophidia’s physical description and movements are snake-like and her name is a nod to snakes. In Haiti, La Siréne, a figure connected to Mami Wati, is said to carry a mirror that is used as a portal between our world and her mystical realm. As Ophidia does in the novel, La Siréne can transport dreamers to her underwater lair to communicate and advise.

Last, I loved learning about storytelling traditions in the Caribbean. As part of my research for A Comb of Wishes, I interviewed storyteller Diane Ferlatte who shared her experience and knowledge. In her words, “Storytelling comes from the African tradition and is not a spectator sport.” That participatory idea is also explored through the story frame “Crick, Crack,” (sometimes written as “Krik Krak”) which is common on islands like Haiti, Grenada, and others. In communities around the world, oral traditions keep histories alive and create shared experiences through the interplay between the teller, the tale, and the audience.

If you could transport your characters across book dimensions, which book would you most like them to end up in and why?

That is a hard question! I think Ophida would love to be part of a world with other magical creatures, even if she chose to remain solitary. Perhaps a world like Narnia!

Kela has such a strong connection to storytelling through her mother. She might like to visit a world like that of Inkheart or The Land of Stories, where she could enter the books that she’s always loved to read.

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

As a 5th and 6th grade teacher, middle grade readers are the age I love interacting with the most. Students this age are curious and love a good story that touches on what they care about most. They are passionate, have a strong sense of justice, and care deeply about their family and friends. I enjoy writing stories that touch on these themes, with a dose of magic and adventure thrown in for good measure!

Any hints about your next book project?

My next book is another stand-alone middle grade fantasy. I like to think of it as my “girl in a tower” story with a twist. It is set in a West African inspired world where memory is closely connected to the land and its people.

Oooh, sounds awesome! Can’t wait to read it!

What has been the most surprising part of your publishing journey?

One of the most surprising things has been to see and hear where my book has landed around the world. Students have shared seeing it in their local libraries and friends and booksellers have shared pictures of it in bookstores around the country. One co-worker told me she gave her copy of my book to an interested hotel concierge in Spain! It amazes me how far my novel has traveled.

Cool! Always love to see how far a story can reach!

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger. I love reading about a world where magic is real, monsters exist, and family stories and cultural traditions are woven in so seamlessly.

What’s your favorite piece of kick-butt advice?

Make the setting essential. I love description but setting should not be simply a backdrop to a story. The place and time in which your characters live should feel essential and operate in support of the rest of your cast, almost as another character. In that way, it can mirror the emotions and tensions of the protagonist, drive conflict, and create additional layers of resonance for the reader.

Yes! Great advice!

Thank you so much for joining us, Lisa!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out A COMB OF WISHES!
It’s on shelves now!

(Illustrator: Michael Machira Mwangi)

Add A COMB OF WISHES on Goodreads!

Connect with Lisa on Twitter, Instagram, or through her website!

Click here to enter to win a copy of A COMB OF WISHES!
Giveaway closes Friday, August 5th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

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