Books for Young Readers: Father's cardboard gift becomes extraordinary in graphic novel

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What child can resist the allure of a cardboard box?

That box could be a race car humming around the inside track at the Indy 500. Or a lifeboat rescuing crew and passengers from the sinking Titanic. Or even a rocket ship hurtling through outer space in search of extraterrestrial life.

This is the fantasy of possibility that Doug TenNapel invokes in his new graphic novel "Cardboard" (Graphix, $12.99, ages 10 and up). No matter how boring or commonplace an item may seem, once it is infused with imagination, adventure and excitement will surely follow.

Mr. TenNapel has a flair for generating genuine characters. Like Mike, a recession-stricken, down-and-out carpenter, desperately in need of work.

Mike is a single father. The story opens with him frantically pleading for a job -- any job. It is his son's birthday and he has no money to buy Cam a gift. Unfortunately, none of his usual employers are hiring, a scenario which will resonate with many adult readers. So Mike resigns himself to returning home empty-handed.

In these first few pages, Mr. TenNapel's art clearly conveys the utter despair and embarrassment that Mike feels. Throughout the story, Mike questions his ability to be a good father.

Of course, the dialogue also tells the story. But it is in the facial expressions, especially Mike's, that fully rounded characters emerge.

In a last-ditch effort, Mike pulls over to the side of the road to examine a cart proclaiming "cheap toys." Yet even the cheap "made in China" toys are too expensive. Mike learns that the 78 cents he has to his name is only enough to purchase an old cardboard box.

Old Man Gideon, the cart manager, assures Mike that the box is the most "utterly stupendous" gift a child could get. Not surprisingly Mike is not convinced. Still, he supposes the cardboard is better than nothing.

Just as he is about to hand over his money, Old Man Gideon tells him that this is not just any cardboard box. It comes with two rules.

(1) All scraps must be returned to Gideon; (2) Mike must not ask for more cardboard.

Mike agrees to the rules, thinking them silly and unnecessary. Cam, being a good boy, is pleased with his gift and can't wait to join his father in building something extraordinary. They set to work creating a boxer (pun intended).

Unexpectedly, when Cam wakes up the next morning, the cardboard boxer has come to life. He informs everyone that his name is Bill.

Enter neighborhood bully Marcus and his henchman Pink Eye. As bullies so often do, they become aware of something special and set out to ruin and/or co-opt it.

Fortunately, the ever enterprising Mike uses what little scraps are left to create a magic cardboard maker. Unfortunately that only draws Marcus back and, of course, sets the stage for even greater mayhem.

Marcus' plan is to create an army of slave monsters to do his bidding. While clearly an unhappy child, he's also very much the archetypical villain set on world domination.

But his cardboard creations turn on him, and he becomes the victim of their bullying. And when this happens, Marcus goes from being a two-dimensional stereotype to a more fully realized character.

The final chaotic adventure occurs underground, in a cardboard kingdom that Marcus' creatures have engineered. Nightmare monsters and nonstop action combine to create an appropriately epic showdown. Working together, Mike, Bill, Cam and even Marcus must race to save the world.

Mr. TenNapel's angular drawing style perfectly portrays the starkness of the real-life problems facing Mike and Cam and the awkwardly animated cardboard creations. Although he uses limited colors, precise details and the propulsive plot will engage readers of all ages.

Indeed "Cardboard" throws open the gates for discussion and dialogue between a parent and child. With references to the current state of the economy, how to deal with a parent's death, single parenthood, bullying, and the always intriguing existential questions of who are we and where do we come from, there's plenty to talk about. And that just might be the most magical impact of all of this very special "Cardboard."

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Julianne Moore is children's librarian for Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Beechview.


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