“Following her parents’ separation, Jen moves with her mom from the city to a small country farm. But Jen would rather be reading or drawing than caring for chickens, let alone answering to her mom’s annoying boyfriend, Walter, and she really doesn’t want to work the farm stand with Walter’s two daughters,” said Mary Wahlmeier of Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas. “Andy and Reese are so perfect; Jen can’t seem to do anything right. But one step at a time, the farm — and their blended family — finally starts to feel like home. I adore Lucy Knisley, and I’m so excited that she’s sharing her pitch-perfect voice with middle readers in this story inspired by her childhood! Fans of Raina Telgemeier, rejoice!”
Here, Bookselling This Week talked with Knisely about her artistic process.
BTW: How did you craft Jen’s character?
LK: Jen is based on me. I wanted to write a story about a kid who was grappling with this change in her circumstances, and I wanted to make her someone that I would’ve identified with as a kid — not necessarily sporty or girly or any of those things, just a regular kid. I wanted her to come up against these different personalities, whether they’re her stepfather or her stepsisters, and make them all very human and nuanced, not clichés. So, Jen is based on me, but I’m trying to make her an “every kid.”
In the past, all of my work has been autobiographical, and this is my shift to fiction — fiction with training wheels, since it’s still based on my life.
BTW: Throughout the story, we see Jen sketching scenes from her past, particularly when she’s feeling homesick for her life before her parents’ divorce. When she’s sketching the present, we see standalone portraits, maps, or even lists. Was this intentional?
LK: Yes! I’m a big proponent of keeping a sketchbook, or even just a notebook if you’re not interested in drawing. I think processing things on paper is a really wonderful way to take in the world and what’s happening with you, and I really wanted to encourage kids to keep their own sketchbooks. To process the world, you’re not writing out your present thoughts in a coherent manner. I’m a sketchbook keeper, and most of my sketchbooks just look chaotic. They’re ideas and thoughts trying to come out on the page. But when you’re thinking about the past, that’s more set in stone. You have that history and that story set in your mind. When Jen is sketching out things that she remembers, it’s much more concrete, a story being told. Whereas when she’s trying to process the world, it’s all just very nebulous. I wanted kids to know that they can keep a sketchbook and it doesn’t have to be one thing or the other.
BTW: This book balances learning about who you are with learning about new surroundings and environments. Is this a theme you’re drawn to often? If so, why?
LK: Most of my work is about transitional states. As I said, I use drawing and writing as a way to process my experiences. I have a book about becoming independent from my parents, and I have a book about becoming a mother, and I really enjoy the idea that you can have these interesting liminal spaces between one thing and another and understand the significance as it goes. This is another way that this is kind of a transition from my autobiographical work into fiction, where Jen is experiencing a transitional state. I wanted to show that period because it’s so significant for an adolescent, for a child, to change their family situations. It is something that really draws me.
BTW: There’s also a complicated family dynamic at play here, particularly in how Jen and her mom’s boyfriend, Walter, interact. Can you talk a little bit about that?
LK: Walter was a complicated character to write. He’s based on my own stepfather, but we didn’t get along as a kid because I couldn’t just say “see ya!” I had to live with this person that I didn’t choose to live with and a lot of kids are in those situations where they come up against adults — whether it’s a teacher or a family member — who is a jerk. They encounter jerks in life, and adolescence is really the first time where they realize, oh, this adult is a jerk and there’s not really much I can do about it, because I’m a kid and I’m in this situation without a lot of power. I wanted to show that you can have a jerk in your life and still get good things out of it. You can still have some positive benefits, but it’s really hard when you’re a kid and you can’t get away. You can still live your life and find solace in the situation until you’re an adult and can say, oh, you’re a jerk, I’m out of here.
BTW: Can you tell me about your writing and artistic process?
LK: I start with a script, kind of like when you’d make a movie. As I’m writing, I’m envisioning the scene taking place and how I would draw it. And then, I make something I call a maquette, which is just the panel borders and the text. That’s a way for me to have in my head how much space I’m going to devote to the visual aspect of the story. Then, I move from there to penciling it, drawing all of the images in pencil, and then inking the final piece.
I never really got beyond the picture book way of thinking about books as a kid, and I think that that early combination of words and pictures, that’s the way that we begin to think about reading. For me, it never went away. I’ve always drawn fan art of books that I’m reading and express the visual aspect of the things that I’m reading. For me, [the two] have always been pretty intrinsically linked.
BTW: What role do indie bookstores play in your life?
LK: They play a huge role! I have an almost four-year-old now, so apart from the fact that we go to bookstores together all the time to buy picture books, they’re how I sell my work and how I connect with my readers. As I’ve said, most of my work is autobiographical, so I have a readership that tends to really know me and things about my life. When I write these stories and they connect with someone, and they have this feeling of, oh, I’m not alone in feeling this, that connection is really why I make this work. It’s so wonderful to go to signings at bookshops and talk to booksellers who have those experiences and really connect with readers. It’s incredibly important to me.
I miss my local bookstores back in Chicago — we’re sheltering in upstate New York at my mom’s farm right now, which is where my book is set. I miss our regular family trip to Quimby’s, which is a local comic book and art shop in our neighborhood, and they also have an old vintage photo booth where we go and get our picture taken every month as a family. Volumes Bookcafe is a relatively new bookshop in our neighborhood, and I’m friends with the owner. I do readings there and story times for kids sometimes, and it’s really wonderful. I have so many good options in Chicago: City Lit Books, Unabridged, and Women and Children First.
In upstate New York, my high school buddy runs the local bookshop here — Suzanna Hermans of Oblong Books & Music. We’ve known each other since we were 14, and it’s really fun that we get to work with each other. I did a pre-order of Stepping Stones through her bookshop, and we’ve been doing a weekly book drop [following social distancing guidelines] to try to get signed books out.