There has long been a joy to the physical capacity of holding a book — even in this age where we can download a million volumes to our phones and e-readers, there’s just something about the heft of a book in your hands that still feels a little bit like magic. But a new Steven Universe book out today takes that magic a step further, as befitting a saga of magical space rocks.
On its surface, The Tale of Steven — penned by Steven Universe mastermind Rebecca Sugar, and with illustrations from Elle Michalka and Angie Wang — is, perhaps like all good children’s books, deceptively simple. Stunningly gorgeous, yes, but still, simple. It’s a storybook retelling of Steven’s complete journey on the show up to and including “Change Your Mind,” charting Pink Diamond’s escape from the Diamond Authority, the rise of Rose Quartz, and all the way to Steven’s own road to getting White Diamond to accept his existence as a being.
But aside from all the thematic discussion that comes with all that, beneath the surface Tale of Steven is a wonderfully smart commentary on bias and perspective, and how different points of view can all colour and reframe the same story. But it isn’t left to literary subtext to make this point — this is, after all, a book whose primary audience is not older fans of the show, but its youngest followers. Instead, it does so in a way that... well, weirdly enough, I kind of have to do this before I can tell you, which feels absurd:
Because Tale of Steven is a physical object that comments on perspective literally.
You realise this the very moment you open the book, which starts with two things: a page for the owner to personalise the book as their own, and then White Diamond talking to the audience. Except... she’s presented like this.
She’s upside down. And instructing that you, dear reader, are simply reading the book wrong. Flip it so White is up the right way, literally physically turn the book upside down in a manner that immediately makes it feel weird and alien, but, that’s supposedly the way to read the book. And so it goes, as White Diamond tells us the story of how a silly little gem like Pink Diamond, against her better’s wishes, chose to rebel and runaway from her duties.
Until suddenly, the book isn’t that. Pink Diamond enters the narrative herself, and with her point of view, the book itself gains, literally, a new point of view. This time, you’re flipping it so it’s vertical. White Diamond is still telling her own version of the story, so you start repeatedly flipping the book around to read each little bubble.
And so, The Tale of Steven goes, adding layer upon layer of perspective. Pink becomes Rose, who has her own point of view and her own way to read the book. Then, when it comes time for Steven to enter the picture, literally, he too has his own view of things, requiring another angle for you to turn the book to to comprehend it.
Page after page, you’re flipping, rotating, reading a single story, told from multiple angles, metatextually and literally. It’s all confusing and more than a little frantic, as perspectives and word bubbles at all angles clash and vie for your eye’s attention.
There’s no right order to read them in, no correct angle to flip the book to. It’ up, down, sideways, back to front, to the point that sometimes you want to turn it over and see if you’re even holding it the right way up any more. That is, until The Tale of Steven reaches its climax — the heartwrenching moment from “Change Your Mind” where White Diamond forcefully removes the Pink Diamond Gem from Steven, only for it to manifest not as Pink or Rose, but Steven himself. It’s told over a series of splash pages, but most importantly, those splash pages read from what we would consider the right way up to read a book.
Steven’s perspective — Steven’s story — becomes the way to read the book. White relents, her final lines in the book printed the right way up instead of upside down, literally diametrically opposed as they were to Steven’s word bubbles. Pink and Rose’s blurbs fade away. Because, after all, it is the Tale of Steven. Shouldn’t he be the one to tell it?
I can’t help but admit that the first time I flicked through it made me tear up. It’s such a minor, little thing — such a simple act of turning the actual book one way or the other. And yet it feels like the smartest thing in the world, to take one of Steven Universe’s grandest themes and make it a literal, physical act.
But in the end, that too is very Steven Universe: something on the surface seeming so simple being far more nuanced and clever than you had initially ever thought it could be.