A few words from King about his story.
My name is Kingston Reginald James but everyone calls me King. My parents said “they named me King so I’d remember who I am, where I came from.” But I don’t really want to be a king.
Every day after school, I walk the dusty road to the bayou to see the dragonflies. “There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, just sitting on tree branches and rocks, baking in the sun, flitting over the brown water that seeps up from the dirt, zipping across the sky, showing off their ghostlike wings.” But there’s no way to know which one is my older brother Khalid.
You see, at Khalid’s funeral, a dragonfly came right through the church window and flew up to the casket where Khalid’s body lay. I knew right then Khalid had come back as a dragonfly. But I can’t tell anybody. Who would believe me? I just keep hoping Khalid will make himself known to me.
Khalid and I used to share a room. At night, he would talk in his sleep, telling me about stars and other universes and about being a dragonfly. But now he’s dead, and I’m all alone.
Right before Khalid died, he overheard my best friend Sandy tell me he liked boys. I think he heard me tell Sandy my secret too, but he never said. After that, Khalid said I couldn’t be friends with Sandy cause people would think I was gay too. He said it was hard enough just to be black in this world.
Now Sandy’s gone missing. I want to find him, be his friend, but I know Khalid would be angry with me. Do I have the courage to help Sandy? Am I brave enough to tell my family and friends my own secret? Read my story to find out.
More about this award-winning novel.
In King and the Dragonflies (Scholastic Press 2020), Kacen Callender does not shy away from difficult issues. It is a contemporary story of King, a Black boy in a small Louisiana town. King’s beloved older brother, Khalid, has died suddenly, and King and his parents are left to deal with their grief in different ways. King has an added dimension to his grief – he is angry at Khalid and also afraid that Khalid would not love him if he knew King’s truth.
A few days before Khalid dies, he overhears King’s best friend Sandy tell King he is gay. Khalid tells King he cannot stay friends with Sandy because people will think King is gay too, and it is hard enough being Black. Because Khalid is dead, King is left to reconcile his feelings of love, anger, guilt, and shame by himself, and Callender accurately describes grief as messy and complex.
On top of this, Sandy (the sheriff’s son) comes from a white, racist family, and there are rumors that his older brother Mikey was involved in the gruesome murder of a Black man. In the first chapter, King is alone on a dirt road when Mikey drives up with a bunch of his white friends. King’s fear is palpable, and when Mikey peels off after stumbling over words of condolence, the reader breathes a sigh of relief with King, not quite sure what just happened.
This is one of the amazing things Callender is able to do throughout the novel. Their characters are complex with subtle nuances. No one in this novel is perfect, yet no one feels irredeemable (except for the sheriff). Mikey appears to be a stereotypical white racist, but he never does anything to hurt King. Moreover, you learn that Mikey loves and cares for his gay younger brother. Whereas, Khalid is portrayed as the perfect big brother, yet he subscribed to toxic ideas of masculinity, reflecting the intersection of anti-gay sentiments in the Black community.
Like all the characters in this novel, King is not perfect either. He shuns Sandy after Khalid says they cannot be friends and then shares Sandy’s secret with other friends. He agrees to be his best friend Jasmine’s boyfriend even though he does not like her that way. King is juggling a great number of secrets, and this requires him to tell a lot of lies. And like most lies, King’s eventually come crashing down, and he is forced to face his own truths.
Finding light and hope.
Fortunately, this is a story of hope and courage. As King evolves, he comes to accept Khalid’s death and finds the real courage it takes to face his own identity. King is not the only character who evolves. After Khalid’s death, King’s father starts to reevaluate his sexist attitudes, opening the door for him to let go of his homophobia and accept King as gay.
Toward the end, King’s father is driving him to school, and they are having a real conversation about everything. His dad is explaining his struggles with accepting King’s sexual orientation, and King asks the right question: “But why should it be so hard?” Finally, King’s dad smiles a little and says: “I guess it’s not that hard. There isn’t really anything to struggle with, when you love someone as much as I love you.” Isn’t that what every child wants to hear? To have a parent (or anyone you love) accept and love your true self is a reaffirming sentiment.
Magic and dreams are expertly woven into the story. Throughout the novel, King keeps Khalid close by remembering the philosophical musings Khalid shared in his sleep. These remembered dreams reinforce King’s certainty that Khalid has come back as a dragonfly, and he visits the bayou every day, hoping Khalid will show himself among the thousands of dragonflies.
Verdict: King and the Dragonflies is a must read.
Callender’s writing is simply stunning. I was instantly captured by their enigmatic first sentence: “The dragonflies live down by the bayou, but there’s no way to know which one’s my brother.” I love this sentence and the sentiment, as King’s certainty that his brother had come back as a dragonfly resonated with me.
When my dad died, I was an adult, but I still held on to a belief that he had come back as a frog, checking the backyard pond daily. And just like King knew that Khalid was not really a dragonfly, I too knew my dad was not a frog. But sometimes in grief you need something that allows you to suspend the realization that death is final.
Amazingly, this book deftly addresses a multitude of difficult issues. Callender is able to balance the many truths shared in a realistic yet hopeful way. I often shy away from potentially heartbreaking books, but this one is too beautiful and poignant to miss. I would recommend it to anyone who is grieving the loss of someone they love or has ever felt afraid to share their own truths.
In the acknowledgements, Callender thanks their editor, Andrea Davis Pinkney, for sparking the idea of writing a middle grade book featuring a gay Black boy, something neither of them had seen. Thank goodness for Davis Pinkney’s inspiration because this is a much-needed story of light and hope for young Black queer tweens.
More from Kacen Callender.
King and the Dragonflies received the 2020 National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature, 2021 Coretta Scott King Honor Book, 2020 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction and Poetry, and the 2021 Lambda Literary Award Winner. Callender has two other middle grade books. The first, Hurricane Child (Scholastic Press 2018), is a 2019 Stonewall Book Award Winner and a 2019 Lambda Literary Award Winner. Their latest middle grade book, Moonflower (Scholastic Press 2022), comes out September 6, 2022. Callender also writes adult and young adult fiction.