It starts with the annual migration of starfish, a sign of good fortune on par with a sighting of the Blessed Virgin. Set in the Lowcountry, author Michele Kingery's first novel, "Starfish," revolves around the five-pointed sea stars and their importance in the life of protagonist Charli Weeks.
Kingery set out to write the story of a family getting through tough times, based on characters and events in her own life. But the environmental component of the starfish in the book caught the attention of The Nature Generation, an organization that works to instill a sense of environmental stewardship in youth. The organization put "Starfish" on its short list for the Green Earth Book Awards in the Young Adult Fiction category, which came as a happy surprise to Kingery.
"It was completely serendipitous," Kingery said. "Just to be a finalist is amazing to me."
Winners will be announced on Earth Day, which is Tuesday. Attempts to reach The Nature Generation officials for comment were unsuccessful.
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"I love the starfish because of that theme of renewal and regeneration," Kingery said. "A starfish can lose a limb and regenerate, so there was that whole motif of healing and rebuilding."
On fictional Long Point Island, which Kingery based on Isle of Palms in Charleston County, the annual stranding of starfish on the beach is celebrated by islanders and seen as good luck. The summer Charli turns 15, the starfish don't show, and things in her life
quickly unravel. Her older brother wrecks his car, killing another person, and the implications leave her once-happy family anything but.
Kingery, a mother of four who lives in Columbia, was put in a similarly devastating scenario 10 years ago, when her son was involved in an accident.
"I got the call that no mother wants to get," she said. "Everything came from that."
She would not elaborate on her son's accident.
Writing became a way to process the events in her life, Kingery said. It also helped her daughter, Chloe, who inspired the character Charli.
"I wanted Charli to have something beyond what had happened in her family to define herself with," Kingery said. "Her question is, 'Am I forever going to be the girl to whom this happened to? Or am I going to expand the definition of who I am?'"
The starfish are Charli's answer to those questions.
Mass starfish strandings do occur along Lowcountry coasts and are usually caused by storm-tossed seas and strong currents, said Al Segars, a veterinarian for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. It's typically weather-related and not a sign of trouble, he said.
Although Kingery's Earth Book Award nomination was a surprise because she didn't set out to write a book with a strong environmental theme, she said her future writing will probably focus on what's happening in the environment.
In addition to writing, she keeps bees, a species in distress. Her next work will probably be about them, she said.
For "Starfish," Kingery said she mostly hopes readers connect with the character Charli Weeks.
"The character has a lot of spunk and stamina and gumption. I want people to fall in love with Charli Weeks," she said. "And find the Charli Weeks within themselves."
Follow reporter Erin Shaw at twitter.com/IPBG_ErinShaw.