Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Book Nook: A Comb of Wishes

I recently had a chance to interview the author of A COMB OF WISHES, Lisa Stringfellow. Informed by Caribbean culture and folklore, the novel follows Kela, a girl learning to cope with her beloved mother’s death and has a tough choice to make when she is granted a wish. 

 When Kela and her friend Lissy stumble across an ancient-looking comb in a coral cave, 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 getting what she wants most comes at an unexpected price. 

You can learn more in this interview.

Why did you write this book?

I started writing A COMB OF WISHES in 2013. As a middle school English teacher, I decided to write alongside my students for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I wanted to write a mermaid fantasy and, because of my West Indian heritage, I imagined a brown-skinned mermaid and a story set in the Caribbean. As I delved into the characters, I knew the story would also touch on the topics of family, regret, love, and forgiveness. 

Representation was important to me as I wrote A COMB OF WISHES. 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.

Why is it important for middle-grade readers to see books that include themes like grief?

Grief is a process we all experience, including children. I felt it was important to show a character dealing with these natural feelings of loss while also showing a loving community supporting her.

Initially, Kela tries to deal with the problems she is having, including her grief, alone. In the Black experience, community is vitally important though. Eventually, she confides her feelings to her father, her best friend, and others. They remind Kela that no matter what, they will be there for her.

Sometimes adults hesitate to give kids books that deal with “heavy” topics. As a classroom teacher, I’ve talked to parents about this issue and try to convey the importance of kids reading all types of books, including the sad ones. Reading a book that deals with a subject with which they can relate helps a child not feel alone. It is exactly how we can help them think about and process their own feelings and build empathy towards others. 

How can fantasy books benefit kids who read them?

Fantasy is such a powerful genre for exploring deep issues in meaningful ways. It can stretch the imagination and take us to fantastic worlds, but it also ground us in what is real and what makes us human.

Often parents whose children consume a steady diet of fantasy will ask me what they should do about it, as if it’s a sticky problem to be solved. I don’t see it that way. Rather than be dismissive of fantasy and see it as mere escapism, we can embrace it as an opportunity for exploration. Children who read fantasy practice seeing the world through different perspectives and being open to considering problems in new ways. So much of fantasy relies on metaphor and the ability of the reader to make connections between the world of the story and their own lives. It can help build empathy and creative thinking.

What was your biggest surprise while writing this book?

As I researched and revised, what surprised me most was how the story developed to incorporate stronger connections to Africa and the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. These topics are inextricably tied to the Black experience in the Caribbean.

The seawoman Ophidia has connections to the broader folklore of mermaids but as I considered the setting more carefully, the culture and history of the islands provided rich layers to explore. I learned of Mami Wata, the West African water spirit who often is depicted as holding a snake, and made strong links to her, even down to my character’s name (Ophidia is the scientific word for the suborder of reptiles that includes all modern snakes).

Additionally, as I dug into her backstory, it made sense that Ophidia’s betrayals by humans is related to the history of enslavement and that bitterness would ripple through to her connection with my main character Kela. It helped me see how interconnected we all are. On the surface, the plot isn’t about racism, but the legacy of it impacts the characters in our time. 

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