The Paper Kingdom, written by Helena Ku Rhee and illustrated by Pascal Campion, hits the perfect balance. The simple, enchanting story line will enrapture younger readers, who will love the magical tales Daniel’s parents tell him. At the same time, the underlying story of Daniel and his parents will leave older readers with important lessons to think about.
Since we are in week four of school closure due to the COVID-19 virus, I had only my two in-house students – my second grade daughter and third grade son – to watch react to this read aloud. And it was so interesting to see the difference! Second graders are still so literal, only able to branch so far beyond the plot to find deeper meaning. While third graders are beginning to understand that the story can be so much more than what happens to the characters.
Daniel’s parents are both night janitors in a large office building. Before Daniel is able to doze off in bed, his parents find that their planned sitter has to cancel, and so they must bring him with them to work that night. They spin an elaborate story of kings, queens, and dragons, who all inhabit this “Paper Kingdom.” Yet, while he is swept into their magical world, he still can’t shake the question of why his parents have to be the ones to clean the kingdom’s messes.
When asked about the lesson of the story, my second grader learned that you should pick up after yourself, and that it’s unfair to ask others to clean up after you. (As her mother, I’m happy to take this lesson learned as a win, if only it were to be truly taken to heart!) But my third grader sensed more of the underlying message. “People who work at night work really hard. You should think about them and how they are cleaning up after you. Like the janitors at school.”
Helena Ku Rhee states in her author’s note that this story is based on her own parents, who were also night janitors and told her amusing stories to help pass the time when they had to bring her to work. This book comes at a time in our country when we are depending on the bravery and sacrifice of so many workers whose jobs were before unseen – truck drivers, warehouse employees, delivery services, those who stock the shelves in our stores. I’m grateful for the message Rhee delivers through Daniel when his Mama whispers, “Remember to be nice when you become king. The dragons work hard too.”