The Cardboard Kingdom is an anthology book, with Chad Sell illustrating the stories of neighborhood children and the intersection of their make-believe and personal lives. Each chapter, written by a different author, features a protagonist’s imagined self serving as an outlet for how they feel in their normal life. The roles these children choose for themselves range widely, including heroes and villains, power fantasies alongside supportive roles, and invention taking place next to action. While some of the kids have brief periods of confusion getting into the collective fantasy or figuring out their individual place within the group, eventually all are accepted and lauded for their unique features.
This premise sounds light and fun, and it absolutely is, with Sell’s artwork generally portraying a bright, friendly neighborhood full of potential for play. This is an all-ages affair with easily understood themes, including ones of introspective struggle and frustration. For example, one of the children, a boy, role-plays as an evil queen, complete with boots and large hair. Another kingdom-dweller, a girl, wears a mustache. Each of them has a hurdle to overcome in getting their parents on board with how they play, which depends on communication and empathy.
Wordless sequences invite the reader to identify how characters feel and why they react the way they do, like a slightly more mature Owly. Any difficulty between family members tends to come down to a gap in understanding. In other cases, a child will play rough, want to incorporate animals in a certain way, or base their persona in reaction to their parents’ separation. Each writer’s story comes from a personal place, which results in a cascading emotional rush over the course of the book as one poignant tale bookends another and the group takes on a larger meaning than any given individual. Kids cameo in each other’s stories, and it’s fun to pick out their forms of play in each chapter. Forget DC and Marvel, this is the connected comics universe I want to follow!
The Cardboard Kingdom begs a certain comparison to another kid-friendly paean to creativity and lost afternoons adventuring around the neighborhood: Calvin & Hobbes. Calvin would absolutely get along/playfully wage war with these kids, and they would invite a living, breathing Hobbes into the action without a moment’s hesitation. In this case, instead of the standoffish “No Girls Allowed” treehouse, the level of play is closer to the anything-goes antics of Calvinball, where the rules are made up but anyone can jump in, including diverse skin tones.
There is no content warning for this book, though you will likely need a tissue by the end, whether you recognize yourself in one of the kids or share in the quiet and loud emotional triumphs that will speak to children and adults alike. I cannot imagine anyone with a heart not being affected by the unbridled joy of this book and so recommend it to the highest possible degree… from the children’s shelf. Keep some drawing materials, LEGO, or cardboard of your own on hand for when this book blows up your own creative urges.
The Cardboard Kingdom
By Various Authors
Art by Chad Sell
Knopf Books, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: Grade 4-7
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9), Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Character Traits: Multiracial Queer Genderqueer
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, LGBTQIA+ Creator