The opening story of Cardboard Kingdom opens on an evil Sorceress and her orcish minion torturing a captive princess, but we soon find out that the fiendish duo is really a couple of siblings playing make believe in their driveway. The pair are discovered by a next door neighbor, and our Sorceress is embarrassed, and runs away followed by his little sister. Since this first story is completely wordless, the reader is left to use infer what made the Sorceress run away: he is afraid to be judged for dressing up as a feminine presenting character. Instead of losing their sense of play, the Sorceress is encouraged by their little sister to come back bigger, and badder than ever with the help of a cardboard costume redesign! The Sorceress learns to own their identity, and also teaches the reader a lesson about projecting gender roles on others…all in 16 wordless pages.
Moments like this are sprinkled throughout this amazing all-ages book: countless boys and girls discover how to face issues through heroism, imagination, and play. There is a joy present at the root of this book that everyone needs to experience. Kids will immediately begin looking for materials to make their own cardboard costumes, and adults will long for the days when they could just make a fort in the middle of the living room and just imagine with reckless abandon. With vibrant art by Chad Sell, and writing duties being covered by Jay Fuller, David Demeo, Katie Schenkel, and more, Cardboard Kingdom is an easy recommendation to make for kids and adults alike.
But for me, Cardboard Kingdom has hit on something deeper than just nostalgia. Earlier this year, I read a string of middle grade books in my role as a judge for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards. I got to read a ton of books for younger kids like The Baby Sitters Club, The Witch Boy, Nightlights and most recently, Drawn Together. As I read through these books, I started to feel this overwhelming sense of comfort. It wasn’t because these titles were overly simplistic. All of these books deal with issues that kids and adults alike have to battle: self-doubt, identity, isolation, fear of the future, and loneliness. All of these books handle those heavy issues in a way that is digestible for younger minds, but doesn’t hold their hands and lead them to conclusions. There’s something about these books that is just…affirming.
I think that is the real draw of reading the current crop of YA and all ages books, television and film for me. I’m happy that children now have so many examples of children who are allowed to explore who they are without being questioned or policed by others. And when they are confronted about the things that make them unique, these characters are given the strength and support to triumph on their own.
Cardboard Kingdom joins titles like Jem and the Holograms and shows like Steven Universe and Craig of the Creek in celebrating experiences of all types, and teaching viewers/readers to embrace their own experiences. Consuming this media is self-care for the adult in me because I get to imagine it for the kid I was, and that feels just great.