Grieving Girls and Vengeful Mermaids: A Comb of Wishes Interview
Lore. Lore is good. Caribbean folklore is even better. I’ve always had a weakness for it, but historically the only place to find it in the children’s book world was in picture books. In the past decade, however, a great deal of island legends have made their way into novels for kids as well. And with mermaids a perpetual source of fascination, no time could be better to take a look at author Lisa Stringfellow’s debut novel A COMB OF WISHES.
Let’s get a little description of the book, shall we? From the publisher:
“Set against the backdrop of Caribbean folklore, Lisa Stringfellow’s spellbinding middle grade debut tells of a grieving girl and a vengeful mermaid and will enchant readers who loved Kacen Callender’s Hurricane Child or Christian McKay Heidicker’s Scary Stories for Young Foxes.
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 Caribbean beaches of St. Rita. So when Kela and her friend Lissy stumble across an ancient-looking comb in a coral cave, with all she’s already lost, 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 what Kela wants most is for her mother to be alive. And a wish that big will exact an even bigger price…”
Not enough? Then let’s get some questions answered from the source:
Betsy Bird: Hello, Lisa! Thank you so much for joining me. So you received the inaugural Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Manuscript Award in 2019 for this very book, A COMB OF WISHES. I always like hearing about the novels authors devoured when they were little. What kinds of books did you read when you were young? Did you go in for fantasy or were you more into realism?
Lisa Stringfellow: I loved to read as a child, and would read just about anything, but fantasy books were definitely a favorite. I remember reading books like A Wrinkle in Time, The Dark is Rising, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I also loved fairy tales, folktales, and legends. I purchased a book called Mysteries, Monsters, and Untold Secrets at a Scholastic Book Fair when I was in fourth grade. It has stories about the Loch Ness Monster, the missing colony at Roanoke, and tales of ghostly ships that sparked my curiosity and imagination.
BB: And mermaids, I bet! Let’s talk mermaids! Lovely, dangerous mermaids. First off, were you a mermaid lover as a kid? What is it about mermaids that we’re so consistently drawn to?
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.
Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid is not as uplifting as the Disney version, and there are elements of this story that I brought into my novel. In an early version of Andersen’s story, the Little Mermaid is told that by killing the prince, she can regain her tail and go back to her sisters in the sea. She can’t bring herself to do it and ends by dissolving as foam on the sea. In A Comb of Wishes, if Ophidia’s comb isn’t returned, she too will dissolve away as foam on the tides.
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. When crafting her character, I wanted to keep her emotions in the forefront, because it’s such a strong part of her motivation.
BB: Your book is, as your publisher has written, “set against the backdrop of Caribbean culture and folklore.” Talk to me a little about how this melds with mermaid myths for you.
LS: My father emigrated from Barbados and I lived with that side of my family growing up. The food, dialect, music, and rich culture was part of my everyday life. When I imagine the sea, I picture the Caribbean.
The image most people have of mermaids is a European one, creatures with light skin and flowing blonde hair. As I researched mermaids and water spirits though, I found that they exist in many, many cultures and traditions around the world.
So much of Caribbean culture is influenced by its West African roots and in creating my novel’s mythology, I drew from the African and Caribbean stories of Mami Wata, Mama Glo (or Mama D’Leau), River Mumma, and others in creating the character of Ophidia and building the lore that surrounds her.
BB: I have to ask, but is this a standalone or the first in a series? Will we be seeing Kela again?
LS: No, I don’t plan to continue Kela’s story right now, but we might see Ophidia again. As a character who’s lived for 300 years, it would be fun to explore more of her story!
BB: Finally, what are you working on next? Or can you even say?
LS: 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.
Incredible thanks to Lisa for taking the time to answer my questions. Thank you too to Grace Fell and the folks at Quill Tree Books for setting this up. A Comb of Wishes is on shelves as of today today today! Go grab yourself a copy or two and read it right up.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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