𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘊𝘢𝘳𝘥𝘣𝘰𝘢𝘳𝘥 𝘒𝘪𝘯𝘨𝘥𝘰𝘮 tells the stories of a group of particularly creative kids in a suburban neighborhood and the worlds, communities, and identities they create using nothing but copious amounts of cardboard and their intense imaginations.
𝑹𝒐𝒂𝒓 𝒐𝒇 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝑩𝒆𝒂𝒔𝒕, the second volume of the budding graphic novel series, finds the youths gearing up for Hallowe’en, adding extra flair to their already elaborate costumes and constructions. Multiple sightings of a monstrous creature creeping around the community puts the kids on edge, however, as does the fact that one of their own is being targeted by teenage bullies. The combination of events threatens to not only ruin their holiday, but also tear the kingdom they’ve worked so hard to build asunder.
○ The first volume of 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘊𝘢𝘳𝘥𝘣𝘰𝘢𝘳𝘥 𝘒𝘪𝘯𝘨𝘥𝘰𝘮 was one of the best books I read last year, so its follow-up was naturally highly anticipated. I pre-ordered it knowing nothing about it, but you can imagine, I’m sure, the joy I felt finding out it was not only Fall themed but centered around Hallowe’en, as well. Chad Sell and Company: delivering delights.
○ Sell’s spectacular artwork was a highlight in the first volume, and continues to be still.
○ There is wholesome queer rep here! Always lovely to see, especially in middle grade offerings.
○ A lot more focus on Alice the Alchemist, a morbid little creep of a character. She’s a favorite. So much fun.
○ The kids end up squaring off against The Teens, naturally. The set piece feels straight out of an ‘80s movie and I am here for it.
○ This book is a lot of fun. A lot more streamlined than the first book, which was more a collection of interconnected short stories (illustrated by Sell and written by various authors) rather than a straight, linear plot. I prefer the anthological approach, but this was a great effort.
○ As per last time, I appreciate the work Sell and his collaborators put into making these stories as inclusive and diverse as they could possibly be. This is a Hallowe’en romp, but it is also a quiet, careful exploration of mental health, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Heady, heavy themes that are handled in such a way that they don’t weigh down the story’s pulpy foundation.
○ Ultimately, I hope these creators continue to bring out hopeful narratives like this, because the kids of the world need and deserve them.
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.