Do we really need another odd-couple easy reader, even if it is a comic? If it’s Gnome and Rat, the answer is yes! Ever since the debut of Arnold Lobel’s classic couple, Frog and Toad, the contrasting friends and roommates has been a popular trope. Elephant and Piggie are the modern classic standard, but it’s an easy form to fit a simple plot and text. Authors and artists have been churning out books like these with varying results, especially along the lines of actually portraying healthy relationships and friendships, and this new offering is delightful and heart-warming.
In a stump in the woods, with snazzy red-and-white spotted mushroom decor, live Gnome and Rat. Together, they have many adventures, most of them centered around Gnome’s hat! Gnome tries to do magic, looks for a temporary replacement for his hat, and then a permanent replacement, all with the quiet, gently amused support of Rat. Along the way they meet other creatures, including a duck named Jerry, a possum known as the “Hat Man”, two magic pink rabbits, and other friends. The text is minimal, with many panels almost completely wordless, but it will need a reader fairly fluent in both textual and visual literacy to decode this story. There are several different fonts used and although the text is brief, there are subtle cues in the characters’ faces that need to be read along with the dialogue.
Gnome is a roly-poly little creature, with a snowy white beard that almost completely hides him and, of course, a bright red, pointed hat! Rat is sleek and elegant in gray, with darker gray patches, and a thin curl of a tail, donning a snazzy yellow scarf and stylish glasses when needed. Gnome bounces off the page with exuberance, while Rat quietly follows along, calming him down as necessary and always there when needed. But this isn’t a one-sided friendship; Rat clearly loves their goofy companion and enjoys Gnome’s antics, comforting him when he’s sad and helping him out when he encounters various hat-related disasters. Gnome’s face pops with larger-than-life emotions—sad, happy, inspired, and mischievous—while Rat’s straight-faced, more subtle humor shines through in their actions and words. The background is a brightly colored forest, with snow-capped mountains, green, flowering meadows, sparkling blue ponds, and lush forests.
This gently humorous offering is threaded with the soft, comforting feeling of a warm hug. Rat and Gnome both pay attention to each other’s needs and feelings, and exhibit a caring, sweet friendship between two very different personalities. Don’t be surprised if readers demand their own gnome-hat to try out some shenanigans on their own, or want to hear this comforting story over and over again.
Gnome and Rat By Lauren Stohler Knopf, 2023 ISBN: 9780593487822
Publisher Age Rating: 6-9 years NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9)
When your friends are your whole world, what happens when you lose one of them and everything seems to be slowly falling apart? Dear Rosie, with words and art by Meghan Boehman and Rachael Briner, is a gentle graphic novel for middle grade readers about grief, friendship, and change.
Millie is about to start eighth grade at Tuscarora Middle School with her three best friends, Florence, Claire, and Gabby. It’s a difficult beginning, as the girls lost their fifth friend Rosie in a car accident the summer before. A new school year is a new start and the girls try to make the best of it, kicking it off with cupcakes in Rosie’s memory. After school, Millie helps her parents out at their laundromat. One day, a woman in a red coat leaves behind a mysterious journal and despite her best efforts to return it, Millie decides to peek inside.
The journal is full of sketches of buildings around their town but one thing really catches her eye—she finds the symbol Rosie always drew on its pages! Millie wants to use the sketchbook to explore and possibly find one final connection with her deceased friend, but getting everyone together to do so isn’t that easy. As the four friends deal with navigating their final year of middle school, they realize sometimes friendship can start to look different than it might have looked before.
Dear Rosieis a delicate look at one year in the lives of four young girls who’ve undergone a huge tragedy in their life. There are new things happening all around them, but the bond of friendship is the main focus of the novel. Rosie’s memory bonds them together and even when things don’t look ideal, they make it through and support one another. Boehman and Briner deal with heavy topics, such as moving, running away, and depression, with such grace and tenderness without ever speaking down to the graphic novel’s intended middle grade audience.
Young readers will find themselves drawn to the warm cottagecore style of the art of Dear Rosie. The book has warm fall coloring except in instances of memories of Rosie. In those panels, the coloring is muted and slightly colder, sending us back into the past when she was still alive. The graphic novel takes place in a world with all humanistic animals, enhancing its cozy feel. There’s additional information about these artistic choices in the book’s back matter for readers looking to learn even more about those. Boehman and Briner really bring the book’s very specific world to life.
Readers who appreciate graphic novels that deal with tough topics, like Stargazing or Sunny Side Up, will enjoy Dear Rosie. It’s also recommended for mystery lovers. This book has the possibility to prompt discussions and bring up heavy feelings as it deals with multiple major life changes, so be aware of any applicable warnings for some readers.
In volume one of The Cardboard Kingdom, we are introduced to a motley group of kids who create their own world, ranging from sorceress and rogues to gargoyles and princes, in their neighborhood. Told through a series of vignettes, they go on adventures, discover friendships, and navigate their personal worlds using play and imagination.
In Volume 2, The Roar of the Beast, it’s the beginning of the school year and the kids are getting excited for Halloween. Nate discovers one night that there is a monster in the neighborhood and each kid claims that it’s not them and thus, instead of a series of connected vignettes just like in the first volume, they go on separate adventures to find the monster once and for all.
One night, Nate thinks he sees his step-brother, Elijah, going into the garage when Nate notices a monster in their midst. In a rush to save Elijah, Nate breaks his leg. The story commences with residents of The Cardboard Kingdom working together (The Monster Mashers) to find and catch the monster with Nate leading the way, from his front porch, of course. The kids are scared, and rightly so, because the monster is indeed scary. A secondary story features VIjay, The Beast, who is being bullied by the neighborhood teens.
Is the monster real and who is behind it? Will the monster ever stop terrorizing the neighborhood? Will Vijay ever come back as The Beast and leave his bedroom? All the mysteries will be revealed.
While there is not really a backstory to this volume, and you don’t really need to read volume one to get the kids’ personalities, it is helpful if you do. There is a lot of subtext going on that could easily be missed, such as Miguel’s crush on Nate, and Alice’s battle between being a brilliant business woman (her aunt is a lawyer) and her desire to have friends.
The book is perfectly rated for grades 4 – 7 and for fans of Raina Telgemeier and All’s Faire in Middle School. There is a lot to unpack beyond the play and imagination. At first blush, it seems like a pre-teen adventure story, but it is so much more than that. Just like in volume one, readers will learn about relationships and cultures they may not find in their day-to-day lives, such as one-parent families, families of mixed races, first generation immigrants, queer kids, and gender fluidity. This is the perfect time for the kids, as pre-teens are still between the worlds of growing up and childhood.
Chad Sell is again the artist and he brings with him the cadre of writers who worked with him on volume one. Their work together has continuity and the voices are consistent, with a lot of uniformity from one volume to the other. I really liked that writers brought their own experiences and influences which really imbues the kids with personalities.
Even as an adult of a certain age, I love The Carboard Kingdom series and I highly recommend this for pre-teens and adults alike. As Sophie the Big Banshee says, ROWWWRRRR.
The Cardboard Kingdom, vol 2: Roar of the Beast By Various Art by Chad Sell Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2021 ISBN: 9780593125540
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11) Creator Representation: Queer, Character Representation: Queer, Genderqueer
Welcome to a neighborhood of kids who transform ordinary boxes into colorful costumes, and their ordinary block into cardboard kingdom. This is the summer when sixteen kids encounter knights and rogues, robots and monsters–and their own inner demons–on one last quest before school starts again.
Cardboard Kingdom By Various Authors Art By Chad Sell ISBN: 9781524719371 Knopf, 2018 NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Hector, Terrence, and Dee have always wondered about their school lunch lady. What does she do when she isn’t dishing out the daily special? Where does she live? Does she have a lot of cats at home? Little do they know, Lunch Lady doesn’t just serve sloppy joes—she serves justice! Whatever danger lies ahead, it’s no match for LUNCH LADY! (Publisher Description)
Lunch Lady By Jarrett J. Krosoczkca ISBN: 9780375846830 Alfred A. Knopf, 2009 NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
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 ISBN: 9781524719371 Knopf Books, 2018 Publisher Age Rating: Grade 4-7
Browse for more like this title 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