The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell, 288 pp, RL 4

Review Originally posted on August 31, 2018
The Cardboard Kingdom 
Purchased at Barnes & Noble
Story: This is a story with a story! On Arpil 15, 2015, Chad Sell launched the collaborative comics project that became The Cardboard Kingdom. Ten creators in nine different cities  answered Chad's call for writers to contribute stories he would illustrate. The call was answered by Jay Fuller, David Demeo, Katie Schenkel, Manuel Betancourt, Molly Muldoon, Vid Alliger, Cloud Jacobs, Michael Cole, Barbara Perez Marquez and Kris Moore, who passed away unexpectedly in 2017 and to whom the book is dedicated. Contributors are everything from writers and comics creators to teachers (college and fifth grade), a jewelry designer and a newly minted librarian. As the collaborative creators of The Cardboard Kingdom themselves demonstrate, like themselves, the world within this graphic novel that they created is one of inclusion, diversity and positivity. 

Uniting all the characters in this kingdom is cardboard (the costumes, weapons and other things they make out of it) and the creative play that evolves from it. In the first, wordless story, The Sorceress, Jack and his little sister are playing in the backyard when their new neighbor peeks over fence, causing him to ruin his sorceress costume. With the help of his little sister, they create an even better costume - and magical world - that they unveil for their new neighbor, inviting her to play. Unhappy with the pointy princess hat that gets put on her head, she goes home and returns later with her own cardboard battle gear, ready to play.

The story I connected with most was The Big Banshee, written by Katie Schenkel. Sophie creates her own super hero, a kind of mean looking green creature that is also a reflection of her own big hair and big personality. When neighborhood bullies calls Sophie a loud mouth and her own grandmother tells her that, "nice little girls don't talk so loud," she is shaken and questioning. However, her mom gives her a few cardboard boxes and she brings her creation to life, feeling proud of her artistic endeavor and supported by her mom. As the story ends, she knows the name of her creation - the Big Banshee.

Other fantastic stories have Becky and Alice, the entrepreneurs of the Cardboard Kingdom, in an escalating situation as Alice's competitive side roars forth. In The Prince, Miguel, enamored of Disney-type fairy tale movies like "The Prince and the Pea," is surprised and excited when Nate invites him to play "The Prince and the Pea" with him. Excitement turns to disappointment when he realizes Nate wants him to play the invasive, monstrous, magical pea. Sophie, Miguel, Nate and Jack quickly realize that playing the story exactly to the script is boring and they use their imaginations, with Miguel ending up as the princess on top of the sofa cushion mountain, then morphs into Miguel the Rogue, the deadly and dashing companion to the Prince who rescues him from the top of the sofa! Then there's Professor Everything, who has to learn to bend his literal thought process to play in the Cardboard Kingdom and Seth, who becomes the Gargoyle, a super hero out to protect himself and his mom from unwanted visits from his dad. Then there is Amanda, the Mad Scientist with the big mustache, just like her dad's, who helps the other super heroes change parts of the bodies/costumes they are unhappy with. Her father is deeply upset to see his daughter with a mustache on and wonders, out loud, what their old neighbors from the Dominican Republic would say if they saw her. The final story, Summer's End,  is by all the creators of The Cardboard Kingdom and it brings together all the kids of the neighborhood to give Becky the adventure she never got because she was too busy running her shop. AND SO MUCH MORE! I wish I could tell you about it all...
Illustrations: Sell's illustrations are phenomenal! I especially love when the range of styles that he employs throughout the book, especially as this feels like an acknowledgement of the contributions of the collaborating writers as well as the diversity of his characters. His palette is bright and a little sun faded, perfect for the long hot summer that this story takes place over. 
Why Read? Why Buy?: Sell and his collaborators have created a world kids that reflects the real world that kids live in, one that is rarely, but I think increasingly, represented in kid's books (movies, television, etc.) The inhabitants of this kingdom come in a multitude of sizes, shapes, races, ethnicities, gender identities and expressions, and families. Even better, there are no messages here, no one tells anyone else how to act, what is right, what is wrong or how to be. Acceptance, one that comes through natural, imaginative play for the child characters, is what flows through the pages of all the stories in this amazing, marvelous book.

On Sell's website, you can find great activities related to The Cardboard Kingdom: You can  download patterns for creating cardboard masks as well as coloring pages!

If you want to know more about the creators of this incredible work, be sure to read this superb interview with all ten of them at Electric Lit.

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