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Review: ‘Stepping Stones’

Stepping Stones
Writer/artist: Lucy Knisley
RH Graphic; $20.99

It’s hard enough watching your parents go through a divorce and then having to move somewhere new because of it, but it’s harder still when that somewhere new is a farm, far away from the city where you grew up and everyone you know, and where you’re suddenly supposed to be a hard-working farmhand with a long list of chores to accomplish every day. Oh, and if your new taskmaster is also your mom’s new boyfriend, who is a bit of a jerk? Well, that certainly doesn’t make it any easier.

That’s the fate of Jen, the young protagonist of Lucy Knisley’s Stepping Stones, as she begins a summer at Peapod Farm, which her mother and her mom’s boyfriend Walter have just set up. If Jen has to be there instead of in the city, she would prefer to spend her time alone drawing and reading comics, but instead she’s assigned the care and feeding of the farm’s new batch of chicks and helping her mom out at the weekly farmer’s market, despite her extreme difficulty with numbers that makes making change for customers a panic-inducing problem.

But wait, it gets worse! On top of all that, Walter’s two daughters come to stay with them regularly, and the eldest one, Andy, is a bit of a know-it-all and Jen’s opposite in practically every way.

Okay, so maybe it’s not the worst set of circumstances any child has ever had to deal with— as kid protagonists go, Jen is hardly a Dickensian orphan— but the challenges and frustrations she faces are awfully real and extremely easy to relate to. Jen’s struggles will be all to familiar to any kid who has ever seethed at the injustice of childhood, their emotions bubbling over at the realization that something just isn’t fair and that the adults in their lives not only don’t seem to care but are actively participating in this lack of fairness.

About halfway through the book, however, Jen begins to quite gradually learn that, despite the many immediate drawbacks, there are some pretty cool things about her new environment, things she could never experience in the city. And maybe it isn’t quite so bad having two part-time sisters; sure, they could be the sources of new conflicts, but they could also be companions, and allies of sorts against Walter, who is often, in Andy’s word, a “jerkface.”

Stepping Stones, then, is something of a story of finding happiness in unhappy circumstances, and something of an exploration of how circumstances are, in and of themselves, neither happy nor unhappy; rather, they’re what one makes of them. An ideal summer read for middle-school readers, Knisley’s graphic novel is an exceedingly charming book about a universal frustration of childhood: One’s lack of control over one’s own life.

While this is Knisley’s first graphic novel for kids, it’s far from her first comic. An acclaimed memoirist, she’s responsible for Relish, Kid Gloves, Something New, Age of License and more, each focusing on different aspects of her life. Here she cheats a little; Jen’s experiences are based in large part on Knisley’s own childhood.

Knisley reveals this in a four-page “Note From the Author” that follows the story, in which she provides some context to aspects of the comic that came from her own life and gives a touching little pep talk of sorts to kids:

One of the worst things about being a kid is finding yourself in these situations where you have no control over the decisions the adults are making that affect you. But sometimes it’s also one of the best things— to find yourself in a situation you couldn’t possibly have chosen for yourself, totally at sea. It can sometimes bring unexpected beauty and introduce strangers that become family.

Also welcome? Her explanation that the real-life inspiration for Walter might have been annoying for the rest of his life, but that he was also beloved. He may be a jerkface throughout the comic, but being kind of annoying is a lot different than being a villain.

Visually, Knisley’s art style is close enough in look, feel and presentation to that of Raina Telgemeier and the Baby Sitters Club line of comics that it should prove perfectly appealing to fans of those (in contrast to much of her previous memoir work, Stepping Stones is sans narration and features bigger, bolder panels, fewer to a page). There are some particularly neat sequences in which Jen, who is an aspiring artist, tells stories of her own past as if she were taking over as the book’s cartoonist; one of these is a funny story about being attacked by aggressive geese, another a flashback to her parents arguing with one another back in their city apartment.

It’s comforting to know that, if Jen shares so much in common with Knisley, then life’s going to go pretty okay for her. Not only is she going to end up making comics when she’s an adult, but she’s going to end up making great ones.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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