Lucy Knisley has been publishing what her website bio calls “personal, confessional graphic novels and travelogues” since 2008, chronicling her life at every stage, from childhood through parenthood. Her work is full of vulnerability, humor, and relatable moments. Stepping Stones is her first fiction comic, though heavily inspired by her own life. It’s also her first book for the middle grade set. It looks at what it means to be a child thrust into situations chosen by adults: sharing a room with “part-time sisters” and being a farm kid.
Jen is a tween wary about life at Peapod Farm. She misses the city and isn’t looking forward to her new jobs raising chicks and working at the farmer’s market. When her mother’s new boyfriend Walter starts bringing his daughters to stay at the farm, Jen clashes with smart and bossy Andy, a girl her own age. The girls’ rocky road to solidarity is full of moments that will have you laughing at farm antics and shouting at the complete unfairness of adults.
The book focuses squarely on Jen’s thoughts and emotions and her struggle with the changes in her life. The story develops at a leisurely pace, giving Jen time to work through her feelings. You can’t help but be hassled by Walter’s waxing about hard work or buoyed by the lighter moments on the farm like mail-order chicks and barn kittens. I found myself filling with Jen’s youthful indignation at the way Walter dismissed her feelings and accomplishments. It took Knisley’s author’s note tying her life to the fiction to finally take some of the sting out of Walter’s insensitive actions. While focusing on the stepfamily dynamic, the relationships and conflicts could apply to many situations and will resonate with most readers. There is a similar universality delivered by the lack of specifics in the setting, time period, and even Jen’s age. The only clues suggesting the book is set in the past are a wall-mounted telephone and the absence of cell phones, small enough instances to keep it from feeling dated. One of Jen’s mains difficulties is the simple math of the farmers market. The author’s note says it’s inspired by Knisley’s own difficulties which stem from dyscalculia, a condition similar to dyslexia but for numbers.
The cartoonish art, bright colors, and mostly conventional panel structure are well suited for the target age. The body language, expressive faces and keen details of the characters display the emotional weight in the story. A perfect example is right on the cover, with spirited yet insecure Jen sporting her eternal cowlick and a scowling blush, compared to Andy’s crisply turned bob and brimming confidence. Everyone has been Jen at some point, feeling unsure about their strengths and footing, faced with a rival who seems invincible. The art changes to line sketches against ruled paper for Jen’s occasional flashbacks, and we frequently get to see her perspective spill out on notebook pages as she draws her world. While having the characteristic rounded faces and sparse features, Knisley’s art is bit more realistic than similar middle grade fare, such as works by Raina Telgemeier and LeUyen Pham. In particular, the lush natural settings make you smell the fresh flowers and feel the splash of the pond.
Beyond the personal, Knisley’s books take aim at culture and the expectations surrounding everything from food to pregnancy to aging. In Stepping Stones, that angle is delivered by a meta moment when the Arnie comic book Jen is reading reveals her frustration at being an overworked farm kid. Suddenly, Walter appears in the pages to call her to even more duties and to introduce daughters resembling the Disney Cinderella’s stepsisters, confirming Jen’s fears. The topic of divorce is still uncommon in children’s literature, despite its prevalence in society. This book goes a step further, focusing on a transitional period when Jen’s mother’s new relationship is serious, but remarriage is still unclear. There are only brief glimpses of the marital turmoil that brought the girls to their farm weekends, showing how perceptive kids can be without going beyond the bounds of what is appropriate for a middle grade story. Anyone who works with kids and books knows the voracious need for realistic graphic novels and Stepping Stones skips right to the top of its genre. Enthusiastically hand it to fans of Smile, Real Friends, and Sunny Side Up. Fortunately, Knisley says there will be more to come.
By Lucy Knisley
Random House Graphic, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Character Traits: White
Creator Highlights: Neurodivergent Creator