Review of the Day: The Cardboard Kingdom, edited and illustrated by Chad Sell

The Cardboard Kingdom Edited and Illustrated by Chad Sell Written by Jay Fuller, David DeMeo, Katie Schenkel, Kris Moore, Molly Muldoon, Vid Alliger, Manuel Betancourt, Michael Cole, Cloud Jacobs, and Barbara Perez Marquez Knopf (an imprint of Random House Children’s Books) $12.99 ISBN: 978-1-5247-1937-1 Ages 9-12 On shelves June 5th The other day I listened […]

CardboardKingdomThe Cardboard Kingdom
Edited and Illustrated by Chad Sell
Written by Jay Fuller, David DeMeo, Katie Schenkel, Kris Moore, Molly Muldoon, Vid Alliger, Manuel Betancourt, Michael Cole, Cloud Jacobs, and Barbara Perez Marquez
Knopf (an imprint of Random House Children’s Books)
$12.99
ISBN: 978-1-5247-1937-1
Ages 9-12
On shelves June 5th

The other day I listened to a very interesting speaker as she defined in crystal clear terms the words “equality” and “equity”. Simply put, “equality” is leveling the playing field and “equity” is getting the same end results. And, as with all things, I turn to the world of children’s literature to see how this applies to the books we’re handing kids. We’re seeing a small increase in the number of books for children that feature groups that have been historically pushed to the side and/or ignored entirely in literature. And, inevitably, since we’re dealing with literature for children, a lot of that stuff is heavy-handed, didactic, and clunky with its messaging. Or, far far worse, not fun. There is no way to turn a child off a message faster than boring them to death with it. Do that and not only do you fail to instill in them any sense of the world in which we live, but you could turn them off of reading as well. How to face this foe? Enter comics to save the day! Specifically, enter The Cardboard Kingdom. You want inclusion? You want diversity? You want positive messages so wrapped up in a bubble of colorful high-octane fun that you swallow the whole pill with glee and beg for more? Chad Sell and his cadre of clever writers are here and they might just be the wave of the future we’ve been waiting for.

Consider the cardboard box. Easily accessible. Available. The perfect tool of children everywhere. Consider its applications. With a cardboard box you can cut and reform it into anything. The headdress of an evil enchanter. The enchanted sword of a knight. A monster. A dragon. The possibilities are endless. In a suburban neighborhood, a large group of children have created a whole other world. They can be anyone they want to be. The boy with a violent father becomes a nighttime vigilante, protecting his home. The girl with a big voice becomes a she-hulk of epic proportions. The boy in desperate need of becoming someone powerful and awesome transforms into a gorgeous sorceress. There are robots, scribes, mad scientists, beasts, anything you want to be is possible. Every home has its challenges. Even a world as beautiful as this has to deal with bullies. But in this little cardboard kingdom, every kid belongs. Particularly the ones reading this book.

When I was a kid I read a lot of old Doonesbury comic strip collections. And sure, I didn’t get a lot out of the sections involving the White House, but when it came to a group of friends living together in a commune, I was entranced. For me, this represented a kind of idealized world. Lots of friends living with you all the time, each person with their own particular quirks and kicks. I got a very similar feeling when I read The Cardboard Kingdom except instead of a 1970s commune, we’re dealing with an extended neighborhood filled to brimming with kids who are all approximately the same age. Even without the inclusion and diversity on show here (and it is present and accounted for), that is already an idealized situation. Because Sell’s art is so enticing, it would be easy to attribute this book’s success (no question, it will be successful) on just the art and the writing. Less obvious, but just as important, is the world it creates. Where kids create quests for other kids, cardboard is a substance that can pretty much be turned into anything, and no two children ever want to play the same character. Expect this book to be read, reread, re-re-read, and delved into on a pretty regular basis.

On a preliminary read I found myself puzzled by something I discovered at the beginning of each section. Chad Sell’s name is featured prominently on the cover of this book and is mentioned with each mini story inside. Yet there was often another name listed next to his. Why? Turns out, this book was co-written, after a fashion, with ten other people. That, in and of itself, isn’t too surprising. Such collaborations have happened before. The tone of the book stays the same throughout too. At first I thought this was because all eleven people aligned their writing styles to make the book the best possible product. Later I discovered it had more to do with the fact that Sell is the driving force behind the project and the other writers are helping him mold and shape the characters. Character is key in this book, and for good reason. More than anything else, The Cardboard Kingdom is a short story collection ala Ray Bradbury’s fellow ode to kids in the summer Dandelion Wine. Coming up with tales as consistently good as this (I can honestly say there’s not a weak one in the bunch) is no mean feat. Now to be fair, because you have so many different writers, there are some interesting tropes that perhaps would have been avoided if there had been a single author. For example, moms are almost universally understanding in this book. Dads and grandparents? Significantly less so, though I think it’s fair to say that with the possible exception of Seth’s dad, no grown-up is beyond hope (and even he knows when he’s beat).

But what’s going to draw kids in is the art. Chad Sell has this accessible style that’s inevitably going to be compared to Raina Telgemeier, what with its clean lines and bold colors (not sure who did the coloring on this book, but they should get extra points since they’re doing about 50% of the heavy lifting visually). You immediately grasp the internal logic of cardboard that can be turned into pretty much anything. This magical substance is without limit in Sell’s world, and we buy in completely. Couple that with the imaginative sequences. If you like the kids then you’ll LOVE their alter egos (particularly that sassy Sorceress with the hips that just won’t stop). But getting beyond the glitz and glamour, the real lure here is Sell’s artistry as a storyteller. You need only look at his wordless sequences (and there are a LOT packed in here). Sometimes a story with dialogue will turn into a tale without a word and the transition is seamless. “The Big Banshee” is a great example of this. When Sophie is sad, all words disappear. Sell even silently shows the grandmother that silenced her, taming down her magnificent hair, an act that speaks volumes without a single syllable. None of this would have worked without Sell putting his heart and soul into each storyline.

As with any anthology, it’s not like the book is flawless. That skill with wordless sequences I just lauded so highly does occasionally lead to confusion. The opening story with The Sorceress is a good example of this. It’s not essential, but it’s a pretty big point that The Sorceress is brought to life by a boy. This might partially account for why he’s so initially shocked and frightened when discovered by his neighbor. However, at that point in the book it’s easy to assume he’s a girl with short hair. To Sell’s credit this is quickly corrected in the second storyline, but it does speak to the problems that inevitably come up when you eschew words. Confusion is inevitable, but by no means a deal breaker.

There has never been a time when there has been as much widespread acceptance (or, at the very least, tolerance) of dressing up as your favorite creature or character. Walk into any comic convention and instantly you’re in a space where people feel safe to live out their fantasies in as flamboyant a fashion as possible. Of course, they learn from the best. Kids are the true geniuses when it comes to full immersion into an alternate world. And children’s literature has always been in love with those kids that could wholly give into those imaginings. Everything from Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson to Doll Bones by Holly Black. And now that comics for kids have gained widespread acceptance, we’re taking that to the next logical level. We can see their imaginings and get just as wrapped up in their storylines as they do. Costumes are, naturally, just a nice bonus. So is the fact that for many The Cardboard Kingdom has the potential to become the norm. Imagine that.

On shelves June 5th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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