Friday, June 22, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #173: The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell (and others)

I wonder about the audience for Chad Sell's The Cardboard Kingdom. It's officially aimed at "Ages 9-12," which straddles the end of elementary school and much of middle school. But it's about a group of kids who build costumes out of cardboard and fabric and run around their neighborhood having imaginative play one summer -- an activity that feels very elementary-school. Most middle-school kids would immediately call that "babyish" and want nothing to do with it.

So my badly-informed guess is that it skews slightly younger than that, maybe more like 6-10. (But, as I understand it, the official category breakdowns for Young Readers are 6-8 and 9-12, and I guess the subject matter tended to skew this upward.) It's for the kids who would be running around the neighborhood pretending to be sorceresses and banshees.

Whether the 6-8s or the 9-12s more need Sell's message of acceptance and inclusion is an open question...but no one will get that message if they don't read the book. (I hope they do: it's a good message, and Sell makes it appealing and fun here.)

The Cardboard Kingdom is a book about being yourself and accepting others as themselves -- these kids are diverse in a bunch of different ways, with the first story being about a boy who wants to pretend to be The Sorceress, and others being too loud or too pushy or too something else for others or their parents. Some have parents divorcing, some have too-traditional grandmothers, some have conflicts with each other. But they all fit in, eventually: they all find people to pretend to be in this fantasy world, and they all play together and are happy.

Some of that diversity may seem political, to the kind of people with a vested interest in pretending that everyone important is really like them and that anyone acting differently is playing politics. Those people are tendentious and wrong, but they're out there. I expect a certain number of them will protest this book, and complain that it's on school library shelves -- that fact that such people are against something generally shows how important it is. If you're buying for a library or a school, it may be something you have to take into account -- because our world is unlike the Cardboard Kingdom in many ways.

The Cardboard Kingdom is made up of a dozen stories, all scripted by different people (probably with some input from Sell) and all drawn, in the same style, by Sell. The first one is in pantomime, but the rest have dialogue: these kids are probably a little more articulate and better able to talk about what they want than the average kid their age, but this book is meant to be a model. It's a utopia of sorts: a summer haven where everyone can be who they want to be right then, and then pack it away and go back to school with great memories in the fall.

Sell turns these various stories into bright, colorful pages full of action, making a vision of a wonderful but realistic childhood -- one where there are struggles and problems, but where they can all be worked through with love and compassion and understanding. It's a gorgeous vision of what we'd want life to be, and I hope it sits in the corner of a thousand classrooms and school libraries to nurture the rising generation of Sorceresses and Big Banshees and Alchemists and Animal Queens.

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