Cardboard Kingdom (Knopf, 2018) bounced to the top of the book-review radar the moment it was released, and soon after tallied an impressive 5 starred reviews. It’s a book for the times: a graphic novel with vivid colors and diverse characters created by author Chad Sell’s graphic-artist friends. Every race and ethnicity is represented in the various skin colors of the characters. Where the diversity may go a little too far is in the “identities” these kids are probably too young to grapple with.
Janie: I’ll start with a plot summary,
since we haven’t reviewed this book.
It’s summertime, and the neighborhood kids are not hunkering down under
the AC but exercising their imaginations in the backyard with cardboard boxes
and crepe paper. Jack, for instance, see
himself as a sorceress (not a sorcerer), and his neighbor is willing to help
him as long as she can be a knight (not a princess). Meanwhile, loudmouth Sophie, to her grandma’s
distress, loves herself as a bully-besting Big Banshee, while Miguel and and
Nate are developing feelings for each other as the handsome Prince and Dashing
Rogue. Becky and Alice go into to
business together. Seth (a.k.a.
Gargoyle) has a violent dad. A girl
called The Robot appears to be an alternate human. Roy, or the Bully, lives with his grandma
because his mom is in some kind of rehab . . . and a few kids live in hetero,
two-parent families! Over the summer
they mold their identities and have fabulous adventures, and when it’s time to
back to school they are all firm friends.
I like the book’s emphasis on imagination and creativity, and hardly a screen is seen in its pages (except an old-fashioned movie screen at the neighbor cinema). The kids have their scrapes and disagreements but manage to work things out on their own. Obviously we have our problems with it, but before we get to that, what else do you see as selling points, Betsy?
Betsy: I love the imagination present in this book, Janie, and I
thought the format really lent itself well to portraying a story of kids
dressing up and instantly becoming their imagined identities. Putting on a
costume often equals stepping into a new role for kids, and a graphic novel can
show that in ways mere prose can’t. I also like that so many different kinds of
kids and families are represented. On any given neighborhood street, there are
single parents, married parents, kids living with grandparents, sibling issues,
neighbor squabbles, and the like. The kids in this story grapple with their
various challenges, and they really do learn to compromise and appreciate what
each person brings to the table.
That being said, the sheer variety of
“diversity” smacks strongly of agenda: instead of the theme centering on
imagination, it becomes a trumpet call to appreciate all forms of diversity, whether or not each form of
“diversity” is equable or desirable. It would have been nice to see some
nuance. Plenty of kids “try on” different identities, even questioning their
gender and sexuality, without that becoming their defining identity. It began
to feel like an agenda instead of a celebration of the many sorts of people
around us. What did you think about that?
Janie: I got that impression, too. As I mentioned earlier,
these kids are young: between ages 7 and 11. What they know of “identity”
is what they hear and see around them. That’s not to say that some
children don’t experience real gender confusion, possibly even from an early
age, but I believe it’s rare. In this neighborhood, it seems that every kid wants to bend gender stereotypes in some way. Most
of the parents are sympathetic—to a fault, sometimes. When Jack, the
“sorceress,” admits he’s drawn to that role in order to be magical and powerful
and amazing, his mom sighs, “Oh, sweetheart—you are!” Sounds like magical self-esteem
boosting. Jack also wants to lead an “Army of Evil”–Why
evil? There’s a lot of yelling and ambushing and counter-attacking: the
Kingdom operates on power and intimidation. This is what we now call
“toxic masculinity,” but it’s okay when girls, or boys pretending to be girls,
act out that scenario.
Since girls and boys actually do play more
combative roles when they’re all running around on the playground, I’m not
bothered by the aggression and intimidation. But coupled with the agenda
angle, the book seems to be telling kids that they’re magical and powerful and
amazing and whatever identity they choose is going to work out just great and
they’ll be able to get along with everybody if they just be themselves.
Is that the message you get, Betsy?
Betsy: Janie, that is a fantastic point about “toxic masculinity”
being acceptable if a person identifying as female practices it. I think you’re
right about the central message of the book: “Be all you WANT to be” and all
will be well. Rather than reassuring, I think it is deceptive to kids. If they
buy into that message, particularly if it’s before middle school, there will be
some rocky times ahead. A better message would be: embrace the unique person
God created you to be with its strengths and
weaknesses. None of us can be all we want to be—or be all we should
be—without Christ. And when we fail, or are confused, or have doubts—we look to
Christ, not ourselves.
Parents who affirm their kids in everything
miss a golden discipleship opportunity. We don’t want books to be preachy, but
I can’t help wondering about how the message of the book would have come across
had the parents been a bit more, well, adult. For instance, when Jack says he
wants to be powerful and amazing and magical, the mom could have said he was
amazing just the way God made him. And then asked him how he thought he could be
powerful and magical. Is a sorceress the only option? What did he not like
about sorcerers? If he thinks sorcerers are too domineering, then that’s a
GREAT opening to talk about how not to use power, not how to eschew male heroes
Obviously, there’s a lot going on in this book.
I think it offers an opportunity to discuss these topics with our kids because
it illustrates so much of the messages they’re are getting from society. And
it’s good to start talking about the many diverse men and diverse women God did
create: men can be both godly AND artistic, gentle, thoughtful, and even need
to be rescued; they can also be strong, decisive protectors. Women can be
entrepreneurs, strong, decisive, artistic, gentle, resourceful (look at the
Proverbs 31 woman!). But that doesn’t change the fundamental nature of creation
and God’s particular creation of male and female. This is obviously a topic
that can’t be addressed in a post like this, but it certainly highlights how
much we need to bring everything we read under the lens of Scripture, and how
much we, as parents and teachers who seek to honor the Lord, seek to disciple
our children in understanding the messages around them, especially when they
conflict with Scripture. It’s a very well done book, artistically; it could
have been a great book.
Janie: That’s a valuable point that speaks to one of our main
goals at Redeemed Reader: not just to tell parents what’s good and bad, but to
help them use children’s literature to develop a biblical worldview. Kids learn
from negative messages as well as positive ones, so long as they are taught to
evaluate them in the light of God’s word.
Next, we’ll talk about the many positive messages in The Girl Who Drew Butterflies!
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