May 24, 2018


The Cardboard Kingdom. By Chad Sell. Knopf. $20.99.

My Magic Breath: Finding Calm Through Mindful Breathing. By Nick Ortner and Alison Taylor. Pictures by Michelle Polizzi. Harper. $17.99.

     An exceptionally inventive and intelligent graphic novel that integrates significant themes of friendship and identity into its flow without ever becoming overbearing or preachy, The Cardboard Kingdom nearly represents a new form of communication. Graphic novels themselves blend comic-book elements with traditional narrative, but Chad Sell – with the additional involvement of 10 other artists, that being part of what makes the book special – expands the graphic-novel approach itself and uses it to tackle some real-life conundrums in a highly sensitive yet age-appropriate way. The book’s very first chapter, “The Sorceress,” created by Sell and Jay Fuller, sets an offbeat and highly intriguing tone: the entire chapter is wordless, and it takes a moment of study of the first two full-page drawings even to figure out what is going on. The left-hand page is a cartoonish rendition of a sorceress in the mode of Disney’s Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. The right-hand page shows the same character in a much more “cartoon-realistic” style, the sort that actually could be included as a still in an animated film. Turn the page, and the story’s third page shows the sorceress and a minion doing their evil – until they are interrupted by seeing a girl drawn to look like a real-world human being. And that forms the visual transition to the story’s fourth page, where it turns out that both sorceress and minion are kids playing in a house’s back yard, their “victim” a doll. This is how the story – and, eventually, the entire book – proceeds, by intermingling and interweaving the fantasies of middle-school children with the everyday circumstances in which they bring those fantasies to life. The Cardboard Kingdom gets its name from the abundant use of cardboard boxes to make costumes and props for the ongoing role-playing. And the book gets its unique style from the fact that the controlling hand of Sell is evident throughout, keeping character portrayals and scenes consistent from chapter to chapter, while other cartoonists – David DeMeo, Katie Schenkel, Kris Moore, Molly Muldoon, Vid Alliger, Manuel Betancourt, Michael Cole, Cloud Jacobs, and Barbara Perez Marquez, in addition to Fuller – contribute specific kids and specific characters to the neighborhood and fantasy-kingdom mix.

     All this is clever and enchanting enough, but there is considerably more here. The kids are multiethnic and multicultural, and that has become a tired trope of books for preteens (and other age ranges as well). But here the kids’ families and characteristics are not merely sops to political correctness. These children have real-world issues. One girl is taunted as “Loud-Mouth Sophie” by the neighborhood bully, then criticized by her own grandmother for sounding like “a hellion” or “a banshee.” So she backs down from her plan for an exuberant costume and tries to be demure, but feels worse and worse – until her mother eventually realizes what is happening and helps Sophie regain her enthusiasm. The bully has his own story, one of not fitting in and feeling he is too old for dress-up games even though he really wants to participate – and here too there is eventually a satisfactory resolution, brought about largely by the kids themselves. Then there is the very intelligent boy who insists the fantasy characters are impossible because “physics won’t allow” what they do – who eventually finds his own role, as “Professor Everything.” And the boy whose parents are in the middle of breaking up, who becomes “The Gargoyle” to “stand guard over this house” when his enraged father turns up one night – and whose determination to “defend the whole block” shows in several pages of wordless, unusually shaped panels that clearly communicate his attentiveness and nervousness. And Amanda, the Hispanic girl who proclaims herself “The Mad Scientist” – complete with mustache – and whose straitlaced father means well in telling her that “changing your friends around…isn’t helping them,” but who eventually softens when he realizes that her mustache duplicates his own. The kids here are fully formed individuals, and even their parents have more realism than parents usually do in any books (traditional or graphic-novel-style) for this age group. Young readers who want to find characters who “look like me” should have no difficulty doing so here – but that superficial “look like me” approach is really an adult construct of limited value, because what kids care about is characters with whose experiences and feelings they can identify, even if the physical resemblance is not exact. So the multicultural neighborhood where The Cardboard Kingdom takes place is all well and good, and handled far better than such elements usually are. But what really matters is that all children in this age group, of any race or ethnicity, should be able to find elements to which they can relate in this summertime story – which ends in exactly the right, consistent way, in a bang-up fantasy finale that eventually leads to a scene in which all the creators of the “kingdom” are heading into the first day of a new school year, their shadows showing the shapes of some of the marvels that they, thanks to Sell and his collaborators, have made so memorable.

     The way that even the best of intentions can go awry through heavy-handed implementation is clear from the equally well-meaning but altogether less persuasive My Magic Breath, a book for younger kids – ages 4-8 – that is intended to teach the basic benefits of mindfulness without actually using any such big word. Nick Ortner and Alison Taylor explain, in suitably simple language, the importance of focusing on breathing when trying to calm down and refocus. And Michelle Polizzi’s illustrations are nicely suited to the text, showing all sorts of multicolored swirls and shapes curling out of a little girl’s mouth as she breathes in a way that “helps when you have too many thoughts running through your head,” and showing somewhat similar but darker-colored shapes to go with a comment about “when you are worried, or nervous, or sad.” The book’s approach is participatory: Ortner and Taylor address their readers, tell them to think of something that “happened today that made you smile,” then instruct them to “blow out all those happy thoughts onto the page,” and so on. But what if nothing happened to make a child smile during the day, and what if the page saying “now, that looks like happiness” does not reflect how the child reading the book feels at that exact moment? Well, then, too bad – there will be a disconnect between the reader and the book’s words and pictures. That is the weakness of this (+++) book: it expects young children to accept what it says about their feelings and their thoughts at any given moment, then instructs them how to handle themselves at a time when they may simply not be in sync with what the book has to say. To be sure, this matter can be mitigated by having an adult read the book to and with a child, choosing a reading time when the grown-up believes the child will be receptive to the book’s lesson. An adult who chooses the right time will be helping the child use breathing to cope with everyday stress. But even then, the specificity of the book may interfere with the clarity of its message: after several pages of positive breathing, Ortner and Taylor write, “I bet you have a big smile on your face.” But what if the child does not have that smile? He or she is likely to think, “What am I doing wrong?” And that is the opposite of the way the authors want kids to feel when trying the techniques they recommend. The suggestions themselves are quite good, including the one to keep a negative thought “stuck in your mind” and then “blow out your breath” and “use it to push out your sad thought.” Again, Polizzi here provides guiding illustrations that go from dark to multicolored. But again, what if a child does not find that this works? “What am I doing wrong?” This is not a small issue: even adults learning meditation and controlled breathing sometimes find that the requirements associated with the instructions increase their stress. Indeed, mindfulness meditation is not for everyone, although when it does help, it can be a good coping strategy. The issue where My Magic Breath is concerned is that the authors unequivocally state, as they take young readers through breathing exercises, “Whew! You did it! Good-by, sad thoughts!” But, since this will not work all the time for all children, the book creates the possibility – by its insistence on being didactic and on pretending to know exactly how its readers feel and respond – of making kids who already feel bad feel even worse. Parents need to use this book carefully: at the right time, with the right child, it can certainly be helpful, but its direct and unsubtle approach carries with it the risk of having an effect that is the opposite of the one its creators intend.

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