The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell
Alfred A. Knopf BFYR, June 2018
Reviewed from ARC
Plot Summary: In this middle grade graphic novel, a group of diverse children use their imaginations and lots and LOTS of cardboard to create and inhabit a pretend world in their neighborhood. The kids’ stories aren’t all fun and games (for instance, the book tackles subjects like divorce and bullying). But, in their Cardboard Kingdom, the kids regain some control over their lives—and are free to be whatever they please.
Queer Rep: For the sake of Stonewall Book Award eligibility, this book fits the bill in its depiction of gender identity/expression and sexuality via two of the major characters. (Note: since characters claim no labels themselves, I’m going to describe their situations rather than identities.)
Though many characters express their gender differently via their Cardboard Kingdom personas, the one who most stands out is Jack (a.k.a. The Sorceress). Readers first meet The Sorceress in a series of wordless panels that introduce her as an outsider, and unveil some of the shame Jack feels about dressing up as her. If that were all we saw of Jack, I’d think it was exploitative. But it isn’t. We go deeper and finally get to hear from Jack directly instead of relying on visual cues/stereotypes.
In one particular scene, in which Jack’s mother is actually saying it’s okay for them to dress up, Jack says of the Sorceress: “She’s what I want to be. / Magical. And powerful. And amazing.” Mom says “You are,” which is, of course, a wonderful moment of parental comfort. But Jack’s comment lingers. For Jack, the stakes are a little different than everyone else in the neighborhood. Through pretend play, Jack’s figuring out their gender identity.
Miguel’s story arc further riffs on the idea of who these characters really want to be via their personas. When he’s invited to play “Prince and the Pea” with Nate, Miguel is first cast as the Pea. That isn’t exactly what Miguel envisioned, so he tries out the role of rescue-ready Princess instead. Another mismatch. Eventually, Miguel writes his own character into the world—the Rogue, who rescues the Prince and becomes his companion. With this act, Miguel forges an image he can see himself reflected in. That’s what makes this book—and the Cardboard Kingdom itself—so special. These characters edit their realities through roleplaying to learn who they really are. You can see this visually represented in the final image of the kids rushing into school, with the shadows of their Cardboard Kingdom personas behind them. Beautiful.
Final Word: Sure, it’s not just a queer story. But, with five starred reviews already under its belt, why couldn’t this one be the next Drama or As the Crow Flies and take the medal?
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