The children’s stories I tend to love the most are those that deal with societies built by kids — stories like Rugrats and Recess and, more recently, Craig of the Creek (the best and most pure animated show on television right now, by the way) — stories that deal with covert communities that have their own cultures and customs, and which act as a fun-house mirror reflection of our own adult world. It’s a trope that I love. If I overanalyze it, I could tell you it’s probably because I had a happy but fairly sheltered and restricted kind of childhood, and the idea appeals to my wish-fulfillment, nostalgic nature. But it’s mostly because I think it’s just fun. And it’s a trope that is front and center in The Cardboard Kingdom, a book I enjoyed so much I finished it in a single, sleepy Sunday afternoon.⠀
The Cardboard Kingdom is a graphic novel by Chad Sell and a veritable village of writers. It’s essentially a collection of short stories centered around a group of creative and imaginative kids with a seemingly endless supply of cardboard, the material which fuels the epic adventures they act out around their neighborhood during Summer break.⠀
As a mood reader, nostalgia often plays a big role in the books I decide to pick up, especially so in my middle-grade choices. I tend to go for books that seem likely to evoke some vague, elusive aspect of my childhood. The stories I choose this way, however, usually end up being way more than just a tool to wistfully reminiscence about my past. And they are always — always — much the better for it.⠀
Cardboard Kingdom was no different in this aspect. It is a fun book to be sure, full of the joy and whimsy of childhood — but it is also a thoroughly modern book, dealing with things like gender roles and identity, conflict between family and friends. That it does so in a subtle and compassionate manner is a credit to the writers. Heavy topics are acknowledged, but they don’t weigh down the book. Because kids are able to grasp serious issues without being burdened by grown-up moralizing. ⠀
Sell’s bold and dynamic illustrations drive the book, but its heart beats thank to the writers that have lent their considerable talents and distinct points of view. Together they have a created a large and diverse cast of characters, each with their own story to tell (and enough cardboard with which to tell them), stories that manage to strike a balance between fun and poignancy: one story can deal with a kid whose parents are going through a messy separation, and the next could deal with a sister hunting down her brother for eating cookies before dinner. Stories that have a deep respect for kids, which is ironically something that a lot of children’s books often fail to do.⠀
Imagination is the theme that runs through all these stories. That the characters in Cardboard Kingdom use the fantastic as the lens through which they view their adventures is a big deal in a world that still tends to view fantasy genre as mere escapism. But is escapism such a terrible thing when the kid whose parents are constantly fighting starts to imagine himself as a superhero protecting those around him? Or for the boy who only feels strong and powerful whenever he dons the personality of a fierce sorceress? Don’t we want them to know that the world is not a static place and that they have the power to change and shape it?
Because if they can build a helmet, a sword, an armor;⠀a mask, a costume, an identity; a tavern, a city, a kingdom — out of such a flimsy material like cardboard, imagine what they will be able to do with the world. They might just make it a better place.
A kingdom on Earth, even.
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