Anne: Hi Lisa, and welcome to MG Book Village! I’m so glad you could stop by and share a bit about your debut novel, A Comb of Wishes, which hits shelves tomorrow: Tuesday, February 8. I really enjoyed this story! Could you start by giving us a super brief summary of what it’s all about?
Lisa: Yes, of course! Twelve-year old Kela is grieving her mother’s recent death when she stumbles on an ancient box in a coral cave. Inside is a beautiful hair comb and when she touches it, she opens a magical connection to a dangerous mermaid named Ophidia. The mermaid offers Kela a wish in exchange for her comb’s return, so Kela wishes for the thing she wants more than anything else…for her mother to come back.
Anne: Such a great setup. Now, I noticed that many of the chapters begin or end with, “Crick. Crack. This is a story… Crick. Crack. The story is put on you.” I love these lines! One character explains to another that “the story is put on you” means the listener must decide what the story means. Where did these lines come from? Were they part of a storytelling tradition in your own family?
Lisa: “Crick, Crack” is not part of my personal family tradition but it is part of a large cultural tradition in the Caribbean. In the Black diaspora, storytelling is a participatory event that requires interaction from both the teller and the hearer of the tale. Another place you can see this is in the call and response structure of sermons within the Black church.
In the Caribbean, many islands have traditional ways of beginning and ending a story—a story frame—that serves as a cue for listeners. “Crick, Crack” (sometimes written as “Krik Krak”) is the frame that I use throughout my book, and it is common on islands like Haiti, Grenada, and others. A popular ending phrase in storytelling in the Caribbean is “De wire bend, De story end.” The tags sometimes are just a signal of ending, like writing “The End,” but other times the tags invite the listener to consider some deeper meaning in the story.
Anne: Now that you’ve cued me in, I hear a sense of “call and response” in the story. Nice. One of your themes is that something sad or broken can become something beautiful; we see this in your protagonist’s hobby of making jewelry from pieces of sea glass. How did this element of the plot emerge? When you started writing, did you know Kela would be a collector of sea glass?
Lisa: Actually, in my early drafts Kela collected seashells and made shell jewelry. I didn’t consider changing her hobby to sea glass until I met a writer who happened to be a marine biologist, and she told me that shell collecting was not environmentally friendly. I immediately researched the environmental impact of shelling and realized I did not want to inadvertently advocate for it through Kela’s actions. For those who may not know, collecting shells removes habitats for sea animals that depend on them, like hermit crabs, and it contributes to beach erosion.
I started thinking about what else she could collect that would lead her to the sea and sea glass quickly resonated. Sea glass is essentially “trash” that humans have added to the ecosystem, so removing it doesn’t harm the animals and marine environment. This was a fortuitous change because my research also led to me reading the folktale about sea glass being “mermaid’s tears,” which fit so beautifully into my story. It’s another reason I value critique partners and encourage writers to seek other eyes on their work.
Anne: Oh. That is so good to know. (Now I have to scour my house for shells and return them to the beach!) Okay, new question: the sea woman (or mermaid) tells Kela that “magic always has a cost… The stronger the magic you invoke, the deeper the consequence.” Oooooh, this line raises the stakes! How did you decide what the “rules” of magic would be? Were there any rules you considered and decided not to use?
Lisa: Worldbuilding is such an important part of fantasy writing and I thought long and hard about how magic would work. Magic should always have a cost, otherwise what is to prevent the user from solving all of their problems with a snap of their fingers?
I decided that Ophidia would have rules that bound her. Why would she offer Kela a wish? Only because she had to. Granting wishes became the “payment” mermaids had to give to humans for the way the seafolk acquired immortality. Kela would also have rules of magic that would affect her. She can wish for anything she wants, but the bigger the wish, the higher the cost she would have to accept. In stories about wishes, the language of the wish is always important and the wishes almost never turn out exactly as the wisher would hope.
Without spoiling anything, I’ll also say that I created magic that even Ophidia couldn’t overcome. She wields power, but there are things beyond even her abilities and understanding. Adding those limitations added suspense and tension that I hope readers enjoy!
Anne: Yes! This reader enjoyed the suspense! What do you hope readers will take away from A Comb of Wishes?
Lisa: There are many things I hope readers take away. First, I wanted to create a positive representation of Black girlhood and family in the novel. Even though Kela is dealing with sadness, she is not alone. In the Black experience, community is vitally important. Eventually, she confides her feelings to her father, her best friend, and others.
Second, sometimes we adults tend to shy away from discussing tough topics with children, but they are necessary. Grief is a human emotion that we all experience. Books can be a safe way for children to see and process those feelings. A Comb of Wishes is a story about grief and love. My main character tries to act “normal” to keep her father from worrying but she struggles with her sadness and withdraws from her best friend Lissy. The adults in her life support her by keeping the lines of communication open and giving her time and space. Parents and teachers can use the book to foster healthy conversations about death and loss and remind children that the ones who have left us always stay in our hearts.
Anne: That’s lovely. Really. And finally, Lisa, where can readers go to learn more about you and your work?
Lisa: Readers can visit my website, lisastringfellow.com, to learn more about me and my books. I’m also active on Twitter and Instagram @EngageReaders: https://twitter.com/EngageReaders and https://www.instagram.com/engagereaders/
Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such a great story!
Lisa Stringfellow writes middle grade fiction and has a not-so-secret fondness for fantasy with a dark twist. Her debut fantasy A Comb of Wishes will be published on February 8, 2022 by HarperCollins/Quill Tree Books. It was selected as an ABA Indies Introduce title for Winter/Spring 2022 and Lisa received the inaugural Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Manuscript Award in 2019 for the novel manuscript. Her work often reflects her West Indian and Black southern heritage. Lisa is a middle school teacher and lives in Boston, Massachusetts, with her children and two bossy cats.
Anne (A.B.) Westrick is today’s MG Book Village interviewer. She’s the author of the older-MG novel Brotherhood. You can learn more about her at https://abwestrick.com/