Stepping Stones: A Farm to Table Reading Experience

the pages show a comic book merging the reading experience and inner life of the main character

Stepping Stones by Lucy Knisley is bound to be engrossing for young readers and is satisfyingly layered for an adult audience.

Stepping Stones

Lucy Knisley
Random House Graphic
May 5, 2020Cover of Stepping Stones by Lucy Knisely: two kids stand behind a table at a farm stand. One looks annoyed, the other smug
It tells the story of Jen, a New York City kid whose parents have recently divorced. Jen is not thrilled to have moved with her mom to a farm; she misses her dad and the city, and she doesn’t like her mom’s new boyfriend, Walter. Or cleaning up after chickens. Or doing math.

Stepping Stones is aimed at middle grade readers. It is about Jen coming to terms with all these aspects of her life that she hasn’t chosen, finding and celebrating the good about herself as well as her new life, and trying in a variety of realistic ways to mitigate the annoyances that dog her. A key feature of this book is that her mom’s boyfriend is also a divorced parent, and his two daughters stay at the farm on weekends. Jen is simultaneously pleased to have “part-time” sisters and annoyed by them, as they are far from perfect. Jen herself is an extremely sympathetic character, but she isn’t perfect either.

Knisley is always great at varying facial expressions and page layouts. These skills show on the book cover; for instance, Jen’s face registers annoyance while her part-time sister radiates annoying smugness. The book also includes splash pages of landscapes as well as notebook pages on which Jen sketches maps of her new environment.

One of the things I like about this book is that it is not strictly about sticking up for oneself or sucking it up and stoically enduring, but rather a mix of emotions. Jen’s situation improves (as does her ability to accept it) and she learns more about the people and environment around her. Sure, she gets used to it, but also she and others around her grow and adapt to each other.

This is a pretty quiet story, with nuanced human interactions and changing farm seasons. Jen’s problems with math, her annoyance with Walter’s older daughter who is a know-it-all, and her fear of snakes all intersect. All the conversations feel believable and all the characters have multiple facets. I think—and this may be problematic for literally every other fan of Lucy Knisley—that I like this better than her memoirs. While this is largely based on Knisley’s own childhood experiences moving to a farm with her mom and learning to enjoy her new life and appreciate her new stepfamily, the veneer of fiction sits dynamically on this book, making for a rich reading experience.

the pages show a comic book merging the reading experience and inner life of the main character
Pages 28 and 29 of Stepping Stones by Lucy Knisley.

Speaking of a rich reading experience! Early in the book, Jen finds an unused hayloft in the barn, and turns it into her secret hideout. She sits up there reading comic books, and her lived experience, along with other media she is consuming, permeates the pages of her “Arnie” comic in a way that will be immediately apparent to some readers, a fun project to figure out for others. If one is familiar with neither Archie comics nor Disney’s Cinderella, it will still provide the layered experience of holding the physical book Stepping Stones, as Jen in the book is holding her own comic.

Now that’s satisfying and engrossing.

Emily Lauer

Emily Lauer

Emily Lauer lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter and dog. She teaches writing and literature at Suffolk County Community College where she studies comics, kids' books, adaptations and visual culture. She is a former Pubwatch Editor for WWAC, and frankly, there is a lot more gray in her hair than there was when this profile picture was taken.