Grab a Sword and Enter the Cardboard Kingdom

The Minion and Sorceress on the left, Jack and sister in mirrored poses on the right

The Cardboard Kingdom

Chad Sell (creator & artist); Jay Fuller, David DeMeo, Katie Schenkel, Kris Moore, Molly Muldoon, Vid Alliger, Manuel Betancourt, Michael Cole, Cloud Jacobs, Barbara Perez Marquez (writers)
Random House
June 2018

Adventure roams the streets as a neighborhood of children turn their suburban homes into a mythical fairy tale world separate from sometimes-harsh reality. From an evil sorceress to a humanity-destroying robot, from entrepreneurial innkeepers to the kingdom’s chronicler, no child is too young or old to take up a sword (or water hose). They find hope, friendship, courage, and themselves, all with the help of some old boxes and a great deal of imagination. Together they build the Cardboard Kingdom.

Cover: The Cardboard Kingdom over a castle turret filled with children in a variety of homemade costumes

As someone who grew up escaping into the fantasy worlds of Prydain, the Enchanted Forest, Middle Earth, and so many others, I immediately connected with the concept of The Cardboard Kingdom. This was the childhood I wished I could have had, instead of one where I spent my summers creating a mythical world my imaginary friends could inhabit with me since we barely had neighbors. I was prepared to enjoy a celebration of youthful creativity.

Chad Sell’s artwork delivers that celebration with riotous colors, pages made to look like children’s drawings, and a “kingdom” map worthy of a grade school cartographer.  With diverse body types, ethnicities, and gender presentations for readers to relate to, no two children are alike. Characters retain defining physical features and mannerisms, leaving them recognizable even when Sell transforms them from children dressed up in cardboard costumes to their imagined personas.

Map of the Cardboard Kingdom, laying out each child's house, denoted by their personas

What I was not expecting was that art to accompany such richly complex storytelling. The writers understand childhood is difficult, lonely, and painful nearly as often as it is joyous and filled with wonder. And they understand children can handle and need to see other children overcoming those times when the world feels too large and scary to handle. Unfortunately, far too many children are living those moments themselves. The Cardboard Kingdom reaches out to them and assures them they can be the heroes of their own stories.

Two-page spread featuring a small portrait of each inhabitant of the kingdom

Within the comic’s brightly-colored pages, the writers build a place whose inhabitants feel real, likely because they are based on real experiences. This diverse group of writers, each penning a story capturing the joys and struggles of a single household’s children, brings refreshing authenticity to the characters. They also increase the odds every reader will find someone to whom they can relate – someone who looks like them or comes from a similar background or faces similar challenges.

Perhaps just as importantly, The Cardboard Kingdom shows adults who embrace their children. These moments show readers there is hope, even if the adults in their lives aren’t ready to accept their choices completely yet. Jack’s mother struggles to understand Jack’s chosen persona, The Sorceress, eventually forbidding Jack from playing as The Sorceress in the house. However, she begins to come around and sits down with Jack to talk about it. She’s clearly not completely on board yet, but she’s working to accept Jack as someone “magical and powerful and amazing” to make up for the fact Jack doesn’t feel that way inside.

In my favorite story, “The Big Banshee,” Sophie’s grandmother is babysitting while Sophie’s mother is away. She constantly berates her granddaughter. Admonishments to be quieter, not to act like a hellion or yell like a banshee, leave Sophie diminished. Her mother’s return leads to a somber conversation between them. “She used to say that to me, too,” Sophie’s mother reassures her. “And she wasn’t right then, either.” Acknowledgment, affirmation, acceptance — all three flow throughout The Cardboard Kingdom.

Sophie, huddled on her bed, surrounded by her grandmother's hurtful words

Marketed as a middle grades graphic novel, The Cardboard Kingdom feels right on track for the 9-12 year old demographic. However, I think the tale can have broader appeal. For parents seeking examples of how to approach their children about difficult topics or older teens trying to puzzle through puberty and growing up, there are good takeaways. Or even for readers like me, reminiscing over a childhood we never had. The Cardboard Kingdom welcomes all.

Laura Stump

Laura Stump

I'm a constantly sleep-deprived writer who mostly prefers the company of cats to people, although cats (curse their lack of opposable thumbs!) can’t fetch beer from the fridge the way people can.