A cardboard palace by Allayne L. Webster
Midnight Sun Publishing, 2017. ISBN 9781925227253
(Age: 10-14) Highly recommended. Themes: Poverty, Refugees, Child Labour, Survival. Allayne Webster's A Cardboard Palace is a powerful story giving a voice to the plight of Romany children taken from their parents and forced to work as pickpockets and thieves in Paris. Jorge lives in No Man's Land a shantytown with ramshackle huts made from scavenged materials. It is a life of desperation and poverty. His controller Bill forces his gang of six girls and four boys to steal from the tourists and locals, at ATMs, in the Louvre, and on the Metro Stations. The children are quick-witted, cunning and fast, taught the tricks of the trade by the villainous Bill.
Jorge is torn between obeying this man and trying to protect his friends. There is a moral dilemma and he wants his voice to be heard. While Abel keeps some of the money he steals to buy food, Jorge keeps nothing for himself. Camp life is confronting, a sick child disappears, trafficked children are locked up and twelve-year-old girls sold as child brides to older men. Their parents keen to receive the dowry money.
When Jorge scavenges in a dumpster behind a cafe, he meets Sticky Ricky an Australian chef who befriends him, feeds him leftovers and takes up the fight to free these children from the gang. There are tense scenes as the special taskforce moves in to evacuate the children and the Catacombs setting where friends save the day.
A Cardboard Palace is a modern Oliver Twist story, where one boy's courage, resilience and determination shine through. Allayne Webster's Parisienne setting shows a different reality, one of poverty and hardship. The light and shade of the narrative, the emotional resonance of Jorge's voice and her honesty in portraying these deeper issues, make this a novel suited to more mature readers. In Year 7 and 8 students engaging with this literary text, can discuss the ethical dilemmas presented and the interpersonal relationships of the characters. (ACARA)