Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Cardboard Kingdom

This is the final book I am writing about this month that I reviewed for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards presented at the Denver Pop Culture Con earlier in June. It really took me by surprise just how moving and heartfelt this book was. It is about a neighborhood that is full of imaginative children who like to engage in pretend-play. They build lots of structures and costumes from cardboard, with each chapter being focused on an individual child. At first, I thought this was just going to be a light look at a bunch of kids playing together, and I have to admit that, art aside, I thought it was going to be pretty forgettable. But after a couple of tales, I was struck by a few things.

First, all of the characters are memorable and nuanced. They come from different family configurations and backgrounds. They are racially diverse. Some may seem like types initially, but getting to see them and their lives quickly disabused me of the notion that they were simple caricatures. They have different interests and distinct personalities. Some want to play out fantasies, while others want to be business people. Some want to be superheroes to help others; some want to be monsters or villains to exercise their power. By the end of the book, I felt like I had known some of these children during my own life.

Second, the issues that they have to deal with are realistic and contemporary. Some come from multi-parent homes, others from same-sex families, or single-parent households. Some deal with abusive or harsh relationships. Some are trying on different gender identities. I feel that the cast of characters is aptly diverse and reflective of modern life in the US. Although it comes from the viewpoints of children, this book grapples with issues of identity, family, and finding one's place in the world.

Third, this book is deceptively complex and engrossing. Later in the story when there are some older kids who come in as bullies and wreck a lot of their work, I was genuinely concerned for the young kids and horrified by what I was reading. This book is gripping, and it sheds an intimate light into the inner lives that children have to life, warts and all. Not all of the stories here resolve well, but they all show what can happen when you have genuinely good friends. I found myself in love with these characters, and it's a book I will read again and again.
The book cover says that the author is Chad Sell, who illustrated the whole thing, but there are different writers (including Jay Fuller, David Derek, Katie Schenkel, Kris Moore, Manuel Betancourt, Molly Muldoon, Vid Alliger, Cloud Jacobs, Michael Cole, Barbara Perez Marquez, Vid Alliger, David Demeo, and Chad Sell) penning individual chapters. In a helpful move, all contributors have a short bio in the end papers. Sell has a very strong, colorful art style that I found very attractive and inviting. I very much liked his technique where he switched back and forth visually from the reality of what the kids made and the fantasy play they were engaged in.
Sell speaks about his life and work in comics in this interview. Or if you prefer to listen to a podcast interview, here is a good one at Comics Syllabus (Hi, Paul!). This interview with many of the book's creators offers multiple insights about the stories. This interview touches on the logistics of tackling this project with so many contributors.

This book has been met with much praise and award nominations. It has received multiple starred reviews, such as the one from Publishers Weekly that concluded, "Imagination, these kids prove, can erase what seem like unbridgeable differences." In their starred review, Kirkus Reviews called it "a breath of fresh air," and added that " this tender and dynamic collection is a must-have for any graphic-novel collection." Esther Keller called it "a lovely book with bold artwork." Elizabeth Bird raved, "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."

The Cardboard Kingdom was published by Random House Graphic, and they offer a preview and more here.

The publisher provided a review copy.

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