Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell (Knopf, 20218) is a delightful romp in a neighborhood full of imaginative children during the course of one summer. This graphic novel shows the stories of more than a dozen children with a variety of unique personalities who live on a couple blocks, and to the discerning reader, it gives a glimpse into the variety of struggles children may face.
The kids in this neighborhood range in age from what it seems like 1st or 2nd grade all the way up to 5th and 6th grade and the personalities are all unique. Most of the different chapters show the summer playtime from the perspective of a different child or group of children. Some of these stories are written by different authors, and the artist brings all these stories together with the illustrations.
I really enjoyed some of the people’s unique stories and what they contribute to the unique imaginative world that they call the “Cardboard Kingdom.” It starts with a couple of kids making swords, shields, and armor from cardboard boxes. This idea spreads around the neighborhood, and more join in with costumes of their own and even cardboard buildings.
The premise sounds simplistic, and it really is. It’s easily accessible to young children, because there are few words. Some stories have no words, some have a bit of dialogue, which rounds out the stories and complements the illustrations. But although the premise and artwork are simple and accessible, I loved that the personalities were so unique that the children’s own struggles came out.
One boy wants to be a “sorceress” and feels most comfortable as such: he is more powerful than he feels he would be as a sorcerer. It is clear to me that he is struggling with some kind of dysmorphia. In a playful scene with another boy, there is a blush on both of their cheeks as they play, suggesting an attraction to each other. But it’s all in an elementary school level, which I appreciated as well. Sometimes I feel books for young children seem to force these things or make such a situation obvious. This book treats this as a childhood moment. I’ll admit: I remember the blush as I played with boys in fifth grade! It’s completely innocent but accurate. For the young reader, they might not make this connection: but it does make it completely normal. My daughter didn’t even blink that he wanted to be the sorceress instead of a sorcerer.
Another boy longs to participate, but since he has a reputation as a “bully,” he cannot quite figure out how to belongs in the group and is heartbroken by the rejections he faces. And, two girls don’t really want to join the imagination part of the games, but find a way to participate by being the diner of the block with lemonade and cookies (for sale!). Of course, these girls had to compete with each other before they come together in friendship.
My favorite story in The Cardboard Kingdom was the story titled “The Gargoyle.” This young boy (probably 10-12 years old), struggles as he sees his parents are separating. In some shots we see his expression while his parents were arguing. He stands guard on the roof of the porch one night, and when he sees his dad approaching, he refuses to let him in because he sees the distress it causes his mother. This sweet scene of protection reminds me that children see and understand more than we give them credit for. I honestly loved the symbolism, since gargoyles are by tradition the protectors of the building they adorn. To add: this boy also joins in the play with the neighborhood, so his serious side does not hold him back.
In short, The Cardboard Kingdom is an amazing simple-but-complex graphic novel. There are lessons but there is also fun for any reader. It is a product of this era with the content, but it feels like the world of the 1980s, when kids were allowed to roam free. If only children could be this unscheduled and free to roam today! I’m sure children dream this type of summer was possible: a summer without summer camps and sports practice, but with unstructured cardboard creations, imagination play, and neighborhood gatherings without a parent in sight!