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Review: Cardboard by Doug TenNapel

By Doug TenNapel
Scholastic Books/Graphix Imprint, August 2012
978-0-545-41873-7, softcover; 978-0-545-41872-0, hardcover

You’ve always known for years that the best toy you ever had wasn’t a Transformer, Strawberry Shortcake, or Star Wars action figure (though they are cool). The best toy you ever had was that big cardboard box your parents got from a new appliance that could be anything you wanted it to be: a spaceship, a fort, a robot—anything—when you used your own imagination to rule the day.

Cam’s father Mike has been down on his luck: He’s an out of work carpenter, a widower, and can’t afford to get his son anything for his birthday. One the way home from a disappointing day of job hunting, Mike comes across Old Man Gideon, an owner of a cheap roadside toy stand who mysteriously sees and knows all. When Gideon learns from Mike that his son is not just any boy—he’s a good boy—he sells Mike a cardboard box for the exact change Mike has in his pocket: $.78. Assured he just bought the worst present ever for his son, Gideon reminds him that cardboard can be anything your imagination wants it to be.

Together at home they build a boxer out of the cardboard. It’s a labor of love as Cam and Mike bond while creating something together from the cardboard. Magically, at night, the cardboard boxer comes to life, and Cam now has the coolest present in the world. Soon Bill the boxer becomes a part of the family as well as a curiosity among the neighbors—especially Marcus, the counterpoint to Cam. Where Cam has nothing but a good heart, Marcus is a pale, shallow boy spoiled by expensive toys, a wealthy family, and no cares for anyone but himself. The contrast is deliberately done, and soon Marcus tricks Cam, steals his cardboard maker, and sets out to create an army of cardboard monsters that nearly destroys the neighborhood.

Cardboard, like Scholastic’s other TenNapel graphic novels, Ghostopolis and Bad Island, is a great stand-alone story that is a fantastic adventure for tween/teen readers. It features one of TenNapel’s core storytelling strengths: The focus on the importance of family. Despite having nothing, Mike and Cam share a strong bond that TenNapel portrays with great care, and you can feel the love they share for each other. The loss of Cam’s mom is felt throughout the book—from how Mike still can’t get involved with his potential girlfriend/neighbor Tina to Cam trying to bring back his mom in cardboard form just to remember how she sounded. Even Marcus has a realistic side to him. Marcus could have been just seen as a boy who makes Sid from the first Toy Story movie seem practically like a saint, but in TenNapel’s hands, he’s not just portrayed as the real monster of the book—he also learns from his mistakes and is redeemed in the end.

TenNapel’s trademark kinetic artwork has never been better as well. The book mixes in plenty of expressive humor. My favorite, Old Man Gideon’s revelation of the true origin of the cardboard on pages 90-93, is just hilarious. The graphic novel also features a heaping mix of action as Marcus’s cardboard monster turns on him and sets the stage for an epic finale in a monstrous world of cardboard creations.

I’m eagerly awaiting the next Scholastic Graphix graphic novel by TenNapel (I believe it’s an updated edition of 2004’s Tommysaurus Rex), and at the rate this creator cranks them out, I won’t have that long to wait. Doug TenNapel is one of the hardest-working creators who works in animation, video games, graphic novels, and webcomics (and a great Kickstarter campaign too). In the meantime, I’m going to go play with some cardboard with my son and see what fun we can create.

Mike Pawuk About Mike Pawuk

Mike Pawuk has been a teen services public librarian for the Cuyahoga County Public Library for over 15 years. A lifelong fan of comic books and graphic novels, he was chair for the 2002 YALSA all-day preconference on graphic novels, served as a judge for the Will Eisner Awards in 2009, as well as helped to create the Great Graphic Novels for Teens selection committee for YALSA. He is the author of Graphic Novels: A Genre Guide to Comic Books, Manga, and More, published by Libraries Unlimited in 2006 and is working on a followup to his book.


  1. Cardboard is a smash hit at my house. My 11 year old has read it four, maybe five times now. Great stuff!

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