I was 21 and thoughtless. I and my co-workers ate popcorn with abandon, not thinking about the mess we made in the office. We were engineers, focused on producing mainframe (does that date me?) computer equipment and not much else. So when the cleaning staff asked us to be less messy, we were shocked out our self-centered world. Ever since, I’ve made an effort to leave office spaces, hotel rooms, restaurant tables, restrooms, and other places as tidy as possible, so that workers who are already tired of cleaning up other peoples’ messes (and who are often measured by how quickly they clean) don’t have unnecessary work.
But I’m thinking it’s a good lesson in awareness, thoughtfulness, and empathy to learn far earlier.
Daniel lives in a tiny apartment with his parents who are night janitors. One night, they get a call from Auntie Clare who can’t come babysit while his parents clean. So he must go with them.
Daniel wants to sleep. Maybe the car? No, his parents won’t let him. He is so tired, he feels like crying. But his parents turn cleaning into an adventure, one in a paper kingdom, where a conference room becomes a throne room and the bathroom becomes a dragon’s lair. I think this is my favorite spread in the book.
Daniel gets upset that the dragons make such a huge mess. He wants to yell at them. But his father tells him:
Someday you’ll have to be king!…
Then you can sit in the throne room and tell the dragons to be nice and neat.
As cleaning comes to an end, Daniel falls asleep and dreams of being king in a paper kingdom, one where he wouldn’t yell at little dragons about their messes, but he’d make sure they cleaned up after themselves—
so mama and papa wouldn’t have to.
This book can be read as a tale for kids to consider cleaning up after themselves at home. And it can be read in the larger sense as we go about our lives in this world. Thoughtfulness is key. Making a mess just because you can often makes others’ lives more arduous.
Helena Ku Rhee includes an author’s note describing how this book reflects her own childhood where her parents were night janitors who turned an unpleasant experience into one of “possibility and magic.”
Pascal Campion, the illustrator, captures the child’s sense of nighttime disorientation at having to leave a comfy bed for an excursion to an enormous office building. The messy office is huge, far bigger than their tiny apartment. And the scenes in the bathroom with the imagined dragon and in the conference room when he pretends to be king are juxtaposed with the true reality of cleaning. The illustrations, in general, have a loose, watercolor-ish dreamlike feel.
Make an origami dragon
Pair this book with Pigsty by Mark Teague (published in 1994, there’s a reason it’s still in print)
Make paper airplanes and hold a contest to hit the trash can.
Clean up after yourself!
Title: The Paper Kingdom
Author: Helena Ku Rhee
Illustrator: Pascal Campion
Publisher: Random House, 2020
Ages: Preschool-3rd grade
Themes: cleaning up after yourself, imagination, thoughtful parenting
For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s website.