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Wednesday, August 5, 2020

'Stepping Stones' by Lucy Knisley

'Stepping Stones' is graphic novelist Lucy Knisley's first middle-grade fiction book.

Knisley is best-known for her adult memoirs ('Relish', 'Kid Gloves', 'Displacement' and more) but recently she has illustrated picture-books like 'You Are New' and 'Go To Sleep: (I Miss You)'

'Stepping Stones' is her first venture into middle-grade realms however, and even though it's biographical (emphasised by the author's note at the back) the protagonist here is called 'Jen' and names have been changed throughout.

'Stepping Stones' tells the story of Jen who has moved to the country with her Mum and her Mum's new boyfriend, Walter following her parent's divorce. Every weekend, Walt's kids - young girls Andy and Reese - come along to Peapod Farm and what begins as a tense relationship on multiple fronts eases into a sweet acceptance of changed circumstance and family-unit.

Knisley's MG offering is very much in the vein of Raina Telgemeier's books - which are also largely biographical recounting aspects of Raina's life growing up in San Francisco (books like 'Smile', 'Sisters', 'Guts' etc.). Raina is really the queen of this niche in tween graphic-novels for a largely female readership; in fact her most recent book 'Guts' with Scholastic got a 1-million copy print-run because her past successes proved she could reach that sales-figure (and did!). It makes sense that a publisher would tap Knisley to produce in this space too; given that she's had huge success in an adult-biographical graphic realm (her last book 'Kid Gloves' was nominated for a Harvey Award, in the Eisners) and in her adult books she's doing similar work to Raina; mining past traumas and complications in her life, to break open various spaces and conversations for her audience (Knisley has written about everything from; miscarriages, to birth complications, break-ups, loss of grandparents, bisexuality, etc.)

But there's something missing in translation as Knisley switches from an adult to middle-grade audience in 'Stepping Stones'. I think what I absolutely love in her adult works is the way she goes off on context-tangents (in 'Kid Gloves' she included pages explaining a history of misogynistic and racist medical practices that see black women dying from labor-complications due to a mismanaged and white patriarchal healthcare structure in America). In her adult works she also seamlessly flashes forward and backward to moments in her life as recounting them brings a fuller understanding of past incidences and future upheavals. That's all missing from 'Stepping Stones' ... we occasionally see Jen (who is also a budding comics artist) drawing out past memories of her parent's fraught marriage and breakdown, but they're stick-figures and light on introspection.

Maybe most frustrating is the character of Walter - her Mum's boyfriend - who really is a bully, and whose own children touch on past incidences between their father and mother, how his aggressive emotional behaviour likely led to divorce. Everything to do with Walt is really left open-ended and not confronted, and it robs the reader of a feeling of conclusion, in a way?

HOWEVER - I did wonder if 'Stepping Stones' was intended as the first in a series based at Peapod Farm, or following the post-divorce adventures of Jen and her family? There are little hints that maybe 'Stepping Stones' is setting up more exploration in this world, and it did strike me that this could be a similar series to Rita Williams-Garcia's 'Gaither Sisters' in switching locations each book, depending on which parent or family-member the girls are with (certainly I could see a Book #2 following Jen home to the city and staying with her Dad?)

As it is; something of 'Stepping Stones' feels a little ... flat? Too short, not quite rich enough with intertextual play like I've come to expect from Knisley and not enough depth to the situations and characters being set-up. I'll hold out hope it's simply a matter of more coming soon!


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