I read this newish picture book late last year, and it struck me how few picture books tackle income inequality and the difficulties that unskilled workers and their children face. Then when I read the Author’s Note and learned that this picture book is based on the author’s own childhood, you know that I had to review it!
Title: The Paper Kingdom
Written By: Helena Ku Rhee
Illustrated By: Pascal Campion
Publisher/Date: Penguin Random House/2020
Suitable for Ages: 4-8
Themes/Topics: imagination, cleaners, night shift, family, #OwnVoices
Mama and Papa were night janitors. While they got ready for work, Daniel got ready for sleep.
Brief Synopsis: When the babysitter cancels, Daniel accompanies his parents to their job as nighttime office cleaners.
Links to Resources:
- Daniel’s parents imagine that a king rules over a large office and that small dragons have been messy. Imagine a creature that creates a mess and draw a picture of it or tell a story about it;
- Imagine a creature that battles messiness, dust, and dirt. How is this creature different from the messy creature?
- Use household items, like a broom, vacuum cleaner, or an empty box to create your own kingdom;
- Explore more ideas in the Reader’s Guide.
Why I Like this Book:
In The Paper Kingdom, Rhee presents a difficult situation, a young child who has to accompany his parents to clean in an “angry” looking building in the middle of the night, and shows how, with imagination, it can be turned into a hope-filled story. Although it’s clear at the outset that the parents are also tired and most likely aren’t looking forward to cleaning messy office space in the middle of the night, the parents don’t complain. Instead, they turn their chores into a game for Daniel, as he searches for the king, the queen, and the messy dragons. And as Daniel sits on the throne at the end of the story, he, and the readers, imagine a world when the dragons pick up “their litter” so that people like his parents don’t need to do so.
I think The Paper Kingdom is a picture book that can help raise awareness about the dignity of work, and how people, including children, can ease burdens for those who keep our schools and other public areas clean and safe. Despite his age, Daniel noticed that papers were strewn about the conference room and that the cafeteria was a total mess with items like banana peels left on the floor. Hopefully, after reading this story, kids will become more aware of the impact their action, or inaction, has on others.
Campion’s detailed illustrations complete the picture of this hard-working family. At the outset, readers see that Daniel sleeps in a bed in the kitchen, that Mama cooks on what seems to be a hotplate, but that a flower-filled vase and houseplant cheer the surroundings while books appear on a shelf and Papa reads a book at the small kitchen table. It’s clear that these hardworking parents have dreams to better their lives, and Daniel’s.
A Note about Craft:
Per the Author’s Note, The Paper Kingdom is based on Rhee’s experiences accompanying her own parents to work as night janitors in an office building. I think this experience has enabled Rhee to be particularly empathetic to kids in this situation and renders this fictional story more relatable.
Interestingly, the ethnic and even racial heritage of Daniel and his parents have been kept vague. I think that’s a good choice, as it will enable more children to see themselves in Daniel, and it may prevent readers from stereotyping that people from a particular ethnic or racial background are more likely to work as cleaners.
This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!