Queer Book Corner – The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell
By Eti Berland
When you’re a kid, is there anything more magical than cardboard? It holds endless potential to become whatever you can imagine. It gets even better when you can share that experience with a friend who accepts the imagined worlds you’ve created and together, you journey to lands beyond. The evergreen concept of kids making things from common objects has been given new life in the 2018 middle grade graphic novel, The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell and a team of 10 other writers. (You may know Chad Sell from his fabulous Rupaul’s Drag Race fan art.) After sharing an open call for submissions, Sell assembled an amazing group of creators who he collaborated with to create this series of interconnected short stories. Each writer expresses their own distinct perspective and personal truths in their story, unified by Sell’s distinctive, vibrant illustrations that draw you into this fantastical world.
The Cardboard Kingdom is about a diverse group of kids who make cardboard costumes and join in epic games of make believe that help them handle their real life problems. It’s a idyllic portrait of life in a community where kids are free to roam and explore, to get messy and be loud, recognizing the profound value of play in children’s development. Play is serious business, as any educator will tell you. Our deep need for play isn’t something we grow out of, but can be a continual source of creativity and self-fulfillment. Just think about the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons, Live Action Role-Playing (LARPing), and cosplay. While magical things happen when they play, the story is firmly rooted in the real world, respecting young readers enough to address the struggles and challenges that they experience. It is through creating characters that express their true selves that the kids figure out who they are. Cardboard Kingdom provides an affirming portrayal of some of the ways young people can express who they are with unwavering acceptance and empathy. They bring their full selves to their imaginative play in a community that accepts them wholeheartedly.
Kids are figuring out all sorts of stuff, including things related to gender and sexuality, and they need books that reflect these experiences. Just as imaginative play helps us prepare for real life encounters, books can provide rehearsals in our lives. Books offer powerful mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors, as Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop coined, which can be validating, eye-opening, and transformative. As the Stonewall Book Award Speculation blog, Medal on My Mind, points out “since characters claim no labels themselves, I’m going to describe their situations rather than identities” (Chunn, 2018). I think we need all kinds of stories, stories where kids claim labels and ones where they’re sorting them out and ones where it’s open-ended. Cardboard Kingdom fills this need with its thoughtful exploration of gender identity and gender roles that lets young readers draw their own conclusions, as well as provides many opportunities for conversations with their caregivers and other caring adults in their lives.
The Sorceress/Jack’s story arc shows how Jack is exploring their gender, taking on the role of the villain in a deliberate nod to Disney’s Maleficent, but with a style all her own. The first story, “The Sorceress,” by Jay Fuller and Chad Sell is a wordless origin story as Jack grapples with shame after being seen by their neighbor as The Sorceress only to design an entirely new look and claim her role as a mega villain against her sworn enemy, the Knight. When Shikha, the Huntress, meets Jack for the first time, she first asks, “Wait, are you a boy?” Jack responds, “I’m the Sorceress!” and she replies, “Cool.” and introduces herself (Sell, 2018, p. 27). This community of kids accept Jack as The Sorceress (even if they don’t want to be her minions), which we definitely need to see in more books for young people. Being the greatest evil in the kingdom means a lot to Jack, as revealed in “The Army of Evil” chapter by Chad Sell. Jack’s mom initiates a conversation, saying, “…that you like to dress up, and… I’m okay with it.. But I’m wondering.. I mean…Is it really just dress-up and make believe? Who IS the Sorceress?” Jack replies, “She’s what I want to be … Magical. And Powerful. And Amazing.” Their mom replies, “Oh, Sweetheart. You are” (p. 187). Empowered by this acceptance, Jack goes on to create not a posse of minions, but an army of evil allies, creating a community for the other fierce creatures.
Another story, “The Mad Scientist” by Barbara Perez Marquez and Chad Sell, also examines gender in a thought-provoking way. In this story, Amanda takes on the role of a mad scientist, complete with lab coat and marvelous mustache, but faces disapproval and shame from her father when he sees her subverting cultural expectations. When we discussed it in our book club, the kids freely admitted to tearing up during this story. Amanda’s mom tells her husband that “when Amanda first showed me her costume… do you know what she was most excited about? … She looked just like you” (p. 154). Sob. With this new understanding, the dad is able to connect with Amanda, saying “sometimes it’s hard to accept what you don’t understand” and returns the mustache (p.157). These moments of acceptance from their caregivers are truly beautiful, giving hope to young readers and tools for caregivers to express unconditional love.
Imaginative play is often a way to challenge the status quo and question the systems that exist that perpetuate fixed gender roles and the gender binary. In “The Sorceress,” Jack’s neighbor, through her body language and facial expression, shows her disdain for having the damsel in distress role foisted upon her, leaving the scene to return as The Knight, The Sorceress’s sworn enemy. In “The Big Banshee” by Katie Schenkel and Chad Sell, Sophie’s grandmother tells her that “in my day, girls knew to behave and be quiet. Not act like a hellion or yell like a banshee,” which hurts and silences Sophie (p. 39). On the next page, Sophie goes through the motions of her day without saying a word, as only a comic can show (p. 41). Sophie finally uses her glorious voice to save Vijay from the bully and claims her identity, naming her monster Big Banshee, transforming the term that made her feel small into something powerful. Moreover, she asserts her right to have her voice be heard.
Being heard and seen is a recurring theme in Cardboard Kingdom. “The Prince” by Manuel Batancourt and Chad Sell directly questions the disneyfied storytelling machine that offers problematic and formulaic tropes. After Manuel and his best friend, Nate, see “The Prince and the Pea” movie, the group tries acting it out, but nothing works. It’s clear that Manuel has a crush on Nate, and through figuring out how to play “The Prince and the Pea,” declaring “… who’s sick of playing these characters?,” he finds his new identity as the Royal Rogue, the Prince’s dashing companion who saves him (p.78). Manuel Batancourt shared in an interview with Comicosity that “The Prince” is “about how those of us who never quite get to see ourselves represented find ways to bend and ship and queer what we see on screen. At its heart, though, it’s a riff on fairy tales for boys who blush when they’re around boys they like” (Long, 2018). It makes my heart sing to see this queer crush storyline in a middle grade graphic novel, especially one that challenges the sexist heteronormative narratives we’ve been given for one a lot more nuanced and interesting.
At the end of the book (spoiler alert!), the endless days of summer cease for our young heroes and they must return to school, but they do not go back empty handed. As the final illustration shows, they are accompanied by the characters and the community they have formed (p. 274). Each reader will take what they need from Cardboard Kingdom. They can realize that they can create communities founded on joyful acceptance where people can be their whole selves. They can recognize that everyone has a battle that they are fighting and be kind. They can better understand that there’s no one way to be human in this beautiful, varied world. They can know that if they can dream of it in their imagination, they can create it in their real lives. And all change starts with dreaming. This incredible graphic novel belongs in every home and library, one that I truly hope grown-ups and young people will read and discuss together. It was just announced that Cardboard Kingdom was selected as the 2019 Youth One Book, One Denver, which is marvelous news, ensuring that thousands of young people will have access to this powerful story this summer and join a community of readers. What happens within the pages of Cardboard Kingdom is happening in real life all the time. People are creating communities and making things together. And that’s definitely something to celebrate.
The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell, Jay Fuller, David DeMeo, Katie Schenkel, Kris Moore, Molly Muldoon, Vid Alliger, Manuel Betancourt, Michael Cole, Cloud Jacobs, and Barbara Perez Marquez.
Publisher: Knopf (an imprint of Random House Children’s Books)
- Chunn, A. (2018, August 5). The Cardboard Kingdom [Blog post]. Retrieved from
- Long, A. (2018, May 15). Interview: Chad Sell and Team Take Readers to The Cardboard
- Kingdom. Comicsosity. Retrieved from
- Wenzel, J. (2019, April 11). “Cardboard Kingdom,” selected for Youth One Book, One Denver 2019.
- Denver Post. Retrieved from