KidLit in Color author Valerie Bolling was excited to interview KidLit in Color author Lisa Stringfellow. This is an interview you don’t want to miss! So, let’s begin …
HAPPY BOOK BIRTHDAY, Lisa, on your middle grade debut, A Comb of Wishes, which releases today! I’ve been waiting for this book to be published ever since it won the manuscript critique award at the annual Kweli conference in 2019, which is when you and I first met.
Thank you, Valerie! That conference seems like it was just yesterday!
What’s your one-liner to describe A Comb of Wishes?
I think it is best summed up as "Mermaids, Monsters and Black Girl Magic!"
I love it, especially the alliteration. Share a little more about your book.
A Comb of Wishes is about twelve-year-old Kela who 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.
How did this book come to be? Feel free to talk about your inspiration, your publication journey, and anything else you want to share.
I started writing the manuscript in 2013 and my inspiration came from thinking about two middle grade books I loved, The Tale of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler and Coraline by Neil Gaiman.
For the characters and setting, I drew on my family’s culture. Kela lives in St. Rita, which is inspired by Barbados where my father was born. The story is rooted in the sounds, sights, smells, and tastes of the islands.
I wrote the manuscript along with my students as part of NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month, the challenge which encourages writers to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.
After completing the manuscript in 2014, I worked on revisions for several more years with the help of critique groups and wonderful mentors I gained through Author Mentor Match and Writing in the Margins. In 2018, I received an offer of representation from my agent Lindsay Auld of Writers House and we revised until the manuscript was ready to go on submission. Once on sub, the novel quickly moved to a five-house auction and was acquired by Rosemary Brosnan at HarperCollins/Quill Tree Books in December of 2019.
What a wonderful journey, Lisa. Please tell us more about the refrain in A Comb of Wishes: “Crick Crack. The story is put on you.”
Throughout the book, the chapters that are told from the mermaid Ophidia’s point of view start with the phrase “Crick Crack.” It is a cue for the reader and part of an important 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 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, story frames, that serve as signal 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” at the end of a story, but other times the tags invite the listener to consider some deeper meaning in the story.
The call and response nature of that refrain truly drew me in as I read. Now tell us about yourself and the type of writer you are.
Of course! When I write, I usually start with a concept or premise. I have some scenes in mind and may even choose to write out of order at times.
I would consider myself somewhat between a plotter and a pantster. 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.
What’s your involvement in the writing community?
Having strong relationships in the writing community is important for all writers. When I first began writing, I looked for organizations where I could meet other writers and learn. My first critique group met bi-weekly at a Barnes and Noble to share our work and give each other feedback. They read early manuscripts of A Comb of Wishes and helped me develop the characters and voice.
Since moving, I’ve transitioned to mostly online communities (some have connected me with writers who are close to me geographically). I’m part of several communities such as Inked Voices, The Writers’ Loft in Hudson, MA, Grubstreet and Writers of Color (Supported by Grubstreet), Black Creators HQ, KidLit in Color, and a few Slack groups. The Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Conference has led to many friendships and craft learning opportunities. My debut group the 22Debuts has been especially valuable to me over the past two years leading up to my book’s launch. I’ve met many wonderful writers who I know I will stay connected to past our debut year.
I think learning is a lifelong process, and as a writer I continually look for ways to improve my craft. I frequently take workshops and classes, and I attend writing conferences to develop a deeper knowledge of writing craft. One silver lining of the pandemic has been increased opportunities for online classes and seminars that make it possible to study from home.
As a picture book writer, the idea of writing a middle grade novel is daunting to me. What advice would you give to someone new to writing this genre?
I would advise aspiring writers to take the time to learn their craft. The best thing you can do is to read widely within the age category and genres that interest you. It’s important to read recent books and not rely on our nostalgia for books published when we were young. The needs and interests of children have changed and reading current books will help you understand the nuances of craft, such as style and voice.
Writers also must understand something about what’s important to children that are of middle grade age (8-12). They are learning who they are in the world and starting to explore their independence. They also care deeply about family and friends and the relationships that matter to them.
Observing and listening to kids is a great window into their world, but if you’re not normally around children that age, YouTube channels created by kids and children’s programming (think Disney, Nickelodeon, etc.) can provide great fodder for research.
Those are great suggestions, Lisa. One thing I’ve noticed about middle grade books is that there are multiple threads interwoven throughout the story. In A Comb of Wishes these threads make the story captivating, begging the reader not to put the book down. Is there a thread you enjoyed developing most? Was there one that was particularly challenging?
When I began working on A Comb of Wishes, Ophidia’s character came to me first. She 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 it's such a strong part of her motivation. That emotion is also what eventually causes her to listen to Kela and begin to trust again.
What was challenging about writing her character was that doing so broke one of the “rules” of middle grade storytelling, which is not to have adult point of view characters. I went back and forth over whether to include chapters in Ophidia’s voice, but ultimately decided it was what the story needed and wanted.
How do you hope young readers will experience A Comb of Wishes?
I hope readers will see 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.
What book can we look forward to next from you?
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 be an exciting book and one that empowers young readers to be brave and stand up for what is right.
Lisa, I have no doubt that your second book won’t be like other fairy tales and that it’ll be just as fantastic as A Comb of Wishes. Thank you for allowing me to interview you, and congratulations on being a Brown Bookshelf honoree!
Thank you so much, Valerie!
A Comb of Wishes is available wherever books are sold, including:
For more about Lisa Stringfellow and her books ...
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