An Indies Introduce Q&A With Lisa Stringfellow

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Lisa Stringfellow is the author of A Comb of Wishes, a Winter/Spring 2022 Indies Introduce middle grade selection.

Lisa Stringfellow, author of A COMB OF WISHES
Photo credit: Carter Hasegawa

Stringfellow writes middle grade fiction and has a not-so-secret fondness for fantasy with a dark twist. She received the inaugural Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Manuscript Award in 2019 for an excerpt of her debut middle grade fantasy A Comb of Wishes. Her work often reflects her West Indian and Black Southern heritage. 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. Her professional work has appeared in Edutopia, Education Week, and Independent Teacher Magazine and her happy place is her classroom of fifth and sixth graders, where she champions the rights of all children to see themselves in books. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts with her children and two bossy cats.

“A wonderfully told tale of family, friendship, grief, and longing. A Comb of Wishes explores what happens when legend and real life meet,” said Susan Williams of M. Judson Booksellers in Greenville, South Carolina. “When a powerful mermaid is determined to reclaim what is rightfully hers, Kela begins her journey to discover what really happens when you get the one thing you most want in the world.”

Susan Williams: I love the way the oral tradition of storytelling is such an integral part of the book. How did you know that needed to be an important piece of the narrative?

Lisa Stringfellow: Oral storytelling wasn’t an idea that came to me right away, but as I developed my ideas about wanting to tell Ophidia’s story alongside Kela’s, it began to take shape. Kela is surrounded by stories — those in books and those told by both her mother and Ms. Inniss. In my research about storytelling traditions, I learned about the choral aspect of oral storytelling and the common frames that are used. The idea of sharing stories within a community and making meaning of the tales that are passed down and around began to resonate. All of that fit in beautifully to the story I wanted to tell about Kela and her impossible wish.

SW: A Comb of Wishes is such a beautiful portrayal of friendship and grief. How do your experiences as an educator influence how you write these feelings in such an authentic middle grade voice?

LS: As a teacher, I’ve had students who have suffered the loss of a parent. I wanted to write a story that affirmed those experiences and showed a child who struggles but is surrounded by caring adults who support her.

I approached the subject with care. I started with research into ways that kids express grief and how adults can respond. I talked with a friend who is a social worker during the early stages of the manuscript to get feedback on Kela’s behaviors and feelings.

Grief is a human emotion that we all experience. Books can be a safe way for children to see and process those feelings. 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.

SW: Your mermaid is not a typical singing, sweet, white mermaid looking for love. She is a powerful, Black mermaid after the return of what rightfully belongs to her, but she is also very vulnerable. I think she's absolutely fantastic! Tell us about how you developed her character.

LS: I’ve always loved Disney’s The Little Mermaid and can’t wait for the live-action version with a Black Ariel coming in 2023. I remember seeing the original movie with my family and being excited that Sebastian had a Caribbean accent!

Despite that, sinister mermaids have also intrigued me. The mermaids in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and characters like Calypso from Pirates of the Caribbean were dangerous and enjoyable to watch.

When I began working on A Comb of Wishes, Ophidia’s character came to me first. In fact, the chapter where she pulls herself out of the sea in her mermaid form and claws up the hill to look for Kela on land was the first scene that I wrote.

Ophidia is a complicated creature and I loved writing her. In her past, she once had been hopeful and found friendship with a human girl, despite warnings from the Sea, but that risk backfired and she lost that friend and all trust in humans. When crafting her character, I wanted to keep her emotions in the forefront, because they are such a strong part of her motivation. That emotion is also what eventually causes her to listen to Kela and begin to trust again.

SW: You're a debut author! Please tell us about your process and how having an award-winning published book will impact your process in the future.

LS: I feel humble and grateful that my words will be in the hands of readers soon. It is a surreal experience knowing that the characters and ideas that once lived only in my head are now out in the open and going to live in the minds and hearts of others.

The process for this first book was long and gave me ample time for learning the craft of writing as I worked. I wrote my first draft of A Comb of Wishes in 2013 and worked on it with critique partners, mentors, my agent, and eventually my editor. Because the process for writing a book under contract is different, I’m having to learn new skills and habits in order to write and revise my new manuscript under deadline. I am excited to see where it goes and eventually share my next book with readers sometime in 2023.

SW: It's a wild world we live in. What is your favorite thing to stress eat?

LS: Ah! I admit to having a sweet tooth, so gummy bears are one of my favorite go-tos when I’m writing.

A Comb of Wishes by Lisa Stringfellow (Quill Tree Books, 9780063043435, Hardcover Middle Grade, $16.99) On Sale: 2/8/2022.

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ABA member stores are invited to use this interview or any others in our series of Q&As with Indies Introduce debut authors in newsletters and social media and in online and in-store promotions. Please let us know if you do.