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Five questions for Lucy Knisley

Adult comics creator Lucy Knisley’s middle-grade graphic novel debut Stepping Stones (RH Graphic/Random, 9–12 years) follows city kid Jen and her mom to a small farm in the country. There she contends with new chores (feeding chickens!), tricky family dynamics (Mom’s annoying boyfriend and his daughters who visit on weekends), and a job at the farmers’ market. Loosely based on Knisley’s life, the story has unusual (who could’ve predicted?!) resonance today, as the author’s real-life family shelters back at her mom’s farm.

1. How is creating books for middle-grade different from creating adult books (or picture books)?

Lucy Knisley: It’s mostly not! This book was different for me because I usually work with narration a lot, but this was a story that is told mostly in the pictures. I drew from my acting chops a lot more than I have in the past, and it was fun to tell the story that way. But when I make a book, I like to make the book I want to see in the world, regardless of the age of the intended reader. That’s why I like to think that a lot of my work is good for lots of different ages!

2. This is a very warts-and-all presentation (albeit fictionalized) of family members who are clearly beloved. Was this depiction difficult to navigate?

LK: It was. My stepdad in particular was someone who inspired the Walter character. He was a complicated, annoying person to have as a stepparent, but I learned a lot from him about how to navigate social interactions with people I didn’t necessarily get along with. Now I’m a seasoned jerk-handler, able to manage jerks with aplomb. I think it’s important to show kids that adults aren’t always the more mature ones in a situation; that they’ll encounter adults in positions of authority who are not behaving at their best; and that adults are only human (and sometimes jerks!). It’s important to recognize that you might not be in control of which adults you interact with, and there are those whose words should not necessarily be taken as gospel. But it is also important to recognize the ones who are looking out for you.

3. Do you keep a journal like Jen?

LK: I do! Jen’s journal is much like my grownup journal/sketchbook is now — mostly drawings and cartoons. When I was a kid I was more interested in drawing pictures of dragons, so it wasn’t quite the same as Jen’s.

4. What was your best — or /worst — experience on the farm that didn’t make it into the book?

LK: Because I was an only child and my stepsisters only came on the weekends, I spent a lot of time alone during the week. My mom was busy with the farm and market prep, along with being a caterer part-time. I was often wandering around our farm or our neighbor’s farm, exploring barns and farmhouses. I think, in the long run, this helped me become the cartoonist I am today, because I had to entertain myself with drawings and stories and books. But it was lonely. And sometimes I would hurt myself by mistake. One time in an old farmhouse belonging to a friend of my mom’s, I accidentally electrocuted myself on an old electrical socket. I wasn’t seriously hurt, but I remember that moment of “OUCH” and then realizing that maybe I should find my mom. I also love animals, so I was always trying to make friends with farm animals, some of whom were more friendly than others. I’ve been butted by a goat, had my foot stepped on by a cow, and been chased by multiple farm dogs! I still love them and would do it all again. I made friends with a baby cow who would suck on my finger as a pacifier. They have scratchy tongues like big cats! I befriended many barn cats, betraying most of them by capturing them to take to the vet to be spayed/neutered. And all manner of turtles, frogs, mice, pigs, ducks, and chickens have been petted and cuddled by childhood me.

5. Any advice for kids, parents, teachers, and librarians facing this unusual summer?

LK: It’s interesting that this book should come out now, when I’ve been trying so hard to channel my childhood experiences for my own kid, now faced with so much time on his own without other kids. I remember that loneliness so keenly. My son is four, and we’re sheltering at my mom’s little farmstead. I want him to be comfortable exploring on his own, making up stories in the woods the way I did, but I also keenly remember the times I got hurt or was sad. I mostly try to be grateful for him to be able to go outside safely, right now. In the city, it’s so much harder because it’s impossible to stay away from people. So we have to choose between loneliness and danger. It’s a scary time to be a kid and to be a parent.

Books have been our saving grace. We’ve been reading so much, and my son is starting to be able to read on his own. We order a shipment of a few books every week from our local bookshop, some for him to read on his own and some for us to read with him. We try to pick books about kids, so he feels like he has some connection to another kid, even though he hasn’t interacted with kids in almost two months. I think booksellers and librarians are saving us all right now, with book recommendations, virtual storytimes, and curbside pickups. When I was a lonely kid living on an isolated farm, books were my windows to the world. And now, it’s the same, but so different. I hope Stepping Stones can be a window for people, particularly ones who feel trapped inside. It’s so hard in cities right now, especially for kids, and this book will hopefully give them some fresh air in the pages.

From the May 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book: Summer Reading. For past years’ summer reading lists from The Horn Book, click on the tag summer reading.

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