"Cardboard" Doug TenNapel. 286 pages, softcover. Scholastic, 2012. 9 out of 10.
As a teacher and as a geek parent, it's one of my jobs to find graphic novels that appeal to kids that are also readable and enjoyable for adults. It seems like that should be easy enough, but too many of the "adult" books indulge in over-the-top violence, sex, or language that we all use whilst driving, but you wouldn't recommend to young readers. One of the more reliable authors and artists for "all ages" comics has been Doug TenNapel. Most famous for his creation Earthworm Jim, I've also enjoyed three of his recent books, Ghostopolis, Bad Island, and now Cardboard.
Like the others, Cardboard features a young protagonist with a family in turmoil. Cam's dad is unemployed, and his mom died a few years ago. It's been a rough patch for his dad , who's so broke that Cam's birthday present is...a box. An empty cardboard box. Now, growing up, we had some lean times, and goodness knows I've had my fun with empty cardboard boxes...but this sucks. Cam makes the best of it, and he and his Awfully Handy dad build a boxer out of the box. Bill the Boxer, standing in the living room...until he comes to life. Seems that the cardboard that Dad bought from the odd man on the side of the road will bring to life whatever you build out of it. In this case, a boxer. Bill's friendly, and eager, and wants to become a "real man" like Cam and Dad.
From this point the story expands. If you can build anything out of cardboard and have it become a living thing, what are the limits? They start by building smaller things with the scraps, but quickly run out of cardboard. They come up with an ingenious solution, one that puts them on the road to unlimited possibilities. If they're able to make anything, are there ethical constraints? Can they build an army of Bill the Boxers? Cam builds a miniature version of his dad--could they build his (dead) mom? Should they?
These are great conversation starters with students, and strong prompts for argumentative writing or debates. There are also connections to STEM, STEAM, and Makerspaces; actually building some projects out of recycled cardboard, writing about what would happen if what they built came to life? This is another graphic novel where I've seen how my own son (at times a reluctant reader) latched onto a book and has re-read it many times. If a book can hook him, it will hook other students who don't consider themselves "readers."
There are villains, like the rich neighbor kid who wants to get his hands on the magic cardboard, and legions of monsters who want to destroy not only Cam, but their entire neighborhood. It's an adventure story, but it's also a story about a kid finding acceptance, and a dad finding some self-esteem despite his miserable situation. It's even a love story. Kids might find themselves attracted to the adventure, while adults will enjoy the deeper ideas within the book, and appreciate the artistry involved in telling the story.
Visually, the book is striking. TenNapel has a distinctive style,and he continues it here. Heavy lines, cartoony figures, and stark contrasts are the hallmarks of his artwork, and it works well for this story. I love comics and graphic novels where artists get to cut loose with anything their imagination throws at them, and the cardboard creations of Cam and others provide that opportunity for TenNapel. If you've been looking for a graphic novel that you could enjoy yourself and enjoy teaching to students, Cardboard is a great pick.