Twelve-year-old Kingston James is sure his brother Khalid has turned into a dragonfly. When Khalid unexpectedly passed away, he shed what was his first skin for another to live down by the bayou in their small Louisiana town. Khalid still visits in dreams, and King must keep these secrets to himself as he watches grief transform his family.
It would be easier if King could talk with his best friend, Sandy Sanders. But just days before he died, Khalid told King to end their friendship, after overhearing a secret about Sandy—that he thinks he might be gay. "You don't want anyone to think you're gay too, do you?"
But when Sandy goes missing, sparking a town-wide search, and King finds his former best friend hiding in a tent in his backyard, he agrees to help Sandy escape from his abusive father, and the two begin an adventure as they build their own private paradise down by the bayou and among the dragonflies. As King's friendship with Sandy is reignited, he's forced to confront questions about himself and the reality of his brother's death.
Kacen Callender is a Saint Thomian author of children's fiction and fantasy, best known for their Stonewall Book Award and Lambda Literary Award-winning middle grade debut Hurricane Child. Their fantasy novel, Queen of the Conquered, is the 2020 winner of the World Fantasy Award and King and the Dragonflies won the 2020 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.
Callender is Black, queer, trans, and uses they/them and he/him pronouns. Callender debuted their new name when announcing their next young adult novel Felix Ever After in May 2019.
If these are buzzwords for you, then you have come to the right place. King and the Dragonflies has it all and more!
After 12-year old, Kingston, loses his brother, Khalid, unexpectedly, he is convinced Khalid has transformed into a dragonfly.
King spends his afternoons down by the bayou, where the dragonflies flit about in great numbers. He's constantly searching for that special one. The one that is Khalid.
One of King's most distinct memories of his brother was when Khalid told him he should stop hanging out with his close friend, Sandy Sanders, because he is gay.
Khalid urges King to stay away from Sandy because, 'you don't want people to think you're gay too, do you?'
This hurt King. He never thought his brother would hurt him, but this did and he doesn't even really understand why.
Now he fears something inside him is wrong. There's a girl at school, his friend Jasmine, that likes him. King's not sure he likes her the same way though. He knows people expect him too, but it just doesn't feel right.
In the midst of all this, Sandy goes missing and the entire town begins to search for him.
King is surprised when he ends up finding Sandy in a tent in his backyard. Sandy tells King that his Father, who also happens to be local law enforcement, has been physically abusing him and that is why he ran away.
Devastated to hear what Sandy has been going through, King vows to help him. As the two rekindle their friendship, King begins to vocalize how he is feeling about himself and his sexuality.
This is such a beautifully told story with so many great discussion points for young readers. And let's be honest, older readers as well.
In addition to being a story of a boy discovering his truth, there are also examinations of grief, race and power.
I enjoyed the scenes between King and his parents, who are both struggling with their own grief after the loss of Khalid. The conversations between King and his Father were especially moving.
Callender did a phenomenal job of writing King's character as he struggles trying to fit the mold that others expect him to fit; like trying to fit a circle into a square hole.
His inner dialogue, as he tried to work out for himself what he was feeling, seemed so real. I wanted to grab his hand and tell him it would be okay, but in our world, maybe that's not true. I want to believe that it is and Callender definitely makes it seem like that is possible.
I highly recommend this story. Everyone should read it.
“Secrets are best kept hidden, because sometimes people aren’t ready to hear the truth.”
King and the Dragonflies easily surpassed my expectations. Considering it's written by the same author of Felix Ever After, it’s no wonder I ended up loving the story.
~★~ What is this book about? ~★~
When King’s older brother Khalid died, his spirit became a dragonfly. King looks for him down by the bayou each day, but is secretly haunted by one of the last things he said. Khalid overheard a conversation between King and his best friend Sandy, one where Sandy comes out as gay. Khalid’s words “you don’t want anyone to think you’re gay too, do you?” have never left King. Especially now, when Sandy has gone missing and King thinks he might actually be gay. The battle between mourning his brother and pouring over his final words is a fight King struggles with.
Where should I begin? I loved King’s narrative and his gradual character development. There was something about his emotions being spilled out on the page that I couldn’t help but absorb completely. Sandy also touched my heart; it was lovely to witness the meaningful conversations between him and King.
The exploration of home life, grief and sexuality were executed with grace, as to be expected from Kacen Callender. For a middle grade novel, I’m overjoyed by the amount of meaning that was stuffed into King and the Dragonflies, especially considering its shorter length. This is definitely a story that will bring hope to young queer kids of colour.
Books like these are more than worth a read. I’d recommend it to people of all ages!
KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES is an odd, bittersweet book. I wasn't sure what to make of it while reading it, and to be honest, I'm still kind of trying to figure out my thoughts. King is a young boy living in Louisiana, struggling to deal with his grief over his older brother's death. That's not his only problem, either. He's alienated his best friend by outing him as gay, partially out of fear that his own sexuality might also come into question, as well. Add to that the matter of black idea and intersectionality, the always-grim topic of child abuse, and some magic realism (is King's brother really a dragonfly?) and you have a surprisingly dark children's book about some pretty serious topics.
First, kudos to Scholastic. I think I've given them several shout-outs this year, all well deserved. The Scholastic books I remember from my youth were all fairly milquetoast, but now it seems like their acquisitions department is keen on putting out books that talk about ethnicity, sexuality, diversity, and other relevant topics, all with great stories and told in a way that's easy for kids to read and understand. That is so important, and I love it.
I mostly liked this book. King is a relatable character and I think his struggle to reconcile his sexuality with the homophobia that is present in black culture was really well done. He's also a flawed and morally complex protagonist, doing what he thinks is right at some points, but acting selfishly and in his own interests at others. I liked how right and wrong was discussed in this book, as well as the coming of age story revolving around multiple identities, and I liked how these matters impacted his relationships with other characters in the book, most notably his family (especially his father), his ex-best-friend, Sandy, and his friends, Jasmine, Camille, and Darrell. If it has a downside, it's that the dreamy style and intentional quirkiness sometimes felt a little much, and it's a middle grade novel so it definitely felt young in terms of audience, but it's well-written, and doesn't condescend to its would-be young readers, so I ended up enjoying this much more than I anticipated.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
love the title, love the cover, love the complicated premise, and love callender's thoughtful execution!
what i do NOT love is the audiobook narration. the narrator is not a kid and not from louisiana, but still tried to do preteen voices in a new orleans accent, and it's rough. i hate when a difficult audiobook makes such a negative impact on an otherwise good reading experience, but oh well. i should have gotten the print version!
anyway. as for the actual book, it's very well done! after reading callender's felix ever after, i was expecting a tediously repetitious inner monologue in this one, too. king's thoughts occasionally stray into that territory, but as a whole, king an the dragonflies is a much tighter, clearer book.
i love the nuanced exploration of the intersections of black and gay identities (especially as they exist in the south). king has been taught from a young age that black people can't be gay, so he is burdened with denial and confusion when he questions his identity.
the representation of grief is intense. king's brother, khalid, expresses some ugly homophobia before his sudden death. king's grief is messy and painful as he learns he can both miss khalid and be angry at him. i love the depth and complexity here, especially within a short MG book.
the dragonflies also bring some light magical realism vibes, which are poetic and lovely. kacen callender is super fucking talented!!
Ahh this was such a good example of intersectionality at work. While it didn't tug at my heart the way that I expected it to (quite a few individuals told me that they cried), I did love that Kacen took the time to not only focus on a conversation about race, but also a conversation that focused on being queer and Black. Sometimes people have a tendency to forget that when individuals fit into several categories of maginalized groups they have more complex experiences. The discussion of sexual identity as it relates to the Black community was one that I felt in my core. The Black community has a troubled past with the LGBTQIA+ community so a lot of the thoughts and ideas that were discussed in this book are very reminiscent of toxic behaviors (especially toxic masculinity) that are taught generation after generation.
In addition to this book discussing some pretty hefty topics, I loved that it focused on friendships and not even the glamorous side of friendship. Callender does an amazing job reminding the reader that friendships are hard and that everyone involved is bound to make mistakes, but that they can be the greatest thing in the world when you're willing to fight to keep your friends safe at all costs. And because Callendar was willing to get into the nitty gritty of the friendships in this book, the characters felt more real. It is my understanding that this is intended for a middle grade audience and to be honest it's one of the realest depictions that I've seen of middle grade friendships. From what I can remember my friendships at that time were messy and full of ups and downs. To see that beautifully demonstrated in this text made me even more engaged in the story.
This was a quick read. I listened to it on audio, but it was also an engrossing read. It handles death and grieving in a such a unique and heart-wrenching manner. I definitely can understand why there are readers that have cried reading this book. You feel the anguish and pain of King as he attempts to navigate not only his brothers death, but also human sexuality. I think that this book needs to be in the hands of more middle grade students. It is definitely a conversation starter. I honestly can't wait to jump into more of Callendar's books.
A middlegrade book about a black boy dealing both with grief and his sexuality? An honest depiction of a family coming to terms with the loss of one child and the sexuality of the other? Very real but sweet side characters featuring another queer boy in an abusive home? And a hopeful but realistic ending?
THIS BOOK IS IMPORTANT. And so so good. Just go and read it please.
TW: racism, homophobia, child abuse, discussion of a family member's death, grief
I suppose that even if you come late to a party, you should get some kind of credit for showing up at all, right? When I was a younger reviewer I’d get this huge kick out of being one of the first people online to review the newest books. It didn’t matter if they weren’t going to come out for 6 months, I’d still put that review out there into the world. These days, with the sheer number of titles being churned out every year, I’m happy to sit back and let other readers sift through the sheer number of them for me first. It was a co-worker of mine that alerted me to King and the Dragonflies first. Then it won a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in the middle grade category. Then it was nominated for a National Book Award. Short of a brass band marching down my street chanting the book’s title, there’s not much more then universe could do to convince me that this book would make for worthwhile reading. And still, I hesitated. I had only the vaguest sense of the storyline, but I knew I’d heard the word “homophobia” come up more than once. 2020 has been a hard year. The middle grade novels I’ve read have been hard too. Books of physical abuse, war, cruelty, and worse have taken their toll. I had no desire to take a deep dive into yet another beautifully written but depressing title for upper elementary students. Still, I was curious. I started in cautiously, telling myself that I could stop at any time if it dragged me down too low. But instead of this litany of horrors that I’d been fearing, Kacen Callender filled this book with family and light and hope. Yeah, there are depressing bits, but somehow the book’s overall feel is warm and lovely. Nothing about it takes you too low, though it doesn’t shy away from the truth. Callender’s an artist with words, and after reading this you’re a better person for diving into them.
King’s brother Khalid is dead, but King’s not so sure he’s gone. Indeed, he has reason to suspect that his brother is a dragonfly now. It’s the kind of thought that gets him through his family’s impenetrable silences at mealtimes. It helps him when his friend Jasmine wonders why he doesn’t hang out with their mutual friend Sandy Sanders anymore. But when Sandy goes missing one day and no one can find him, suddenly King has to face some questions he’s been avoiding. Questions about Sandy being gay. Questions about whether King might be gay too. When you’re scared to be yourself, how do you live? And when you’re scared that the people you love might stop loving you back, what do you do to survive?
I don’t know how Kacen Callender sold this book. Considering how their last middle grade title, Hurricane Child was received by the kidliterati, perhaps they didn’t have to do much. Probably all they had to do was send in a single chapter to their publisher. The first chapter in this book. And were I teaching a class on writing for kids, I would make every last person in that class read this same chapter. The whole book is great, but Chapter One crams in plot, emotion, and complex characterizations with enviable effortlessness. First off, you have the first sentence. Now a lot of novels for kids these days sort of eschew the whole “cool first sentence” idea altogether. Not a lot are memorable. Here’s Callender’s: “The dragonflies live down by the bayou, but there’s no way to know which one’s my brother.” From there Callender almost immediately pivots from this cryptic idea to our hero, King, facing a white pickup full of white, teenaged racists who are also probably killers. This was the moment that a 12-year-old version of me was waiting for. If the book got dark right there at the start, I wasn’t going to be emotional invested in it after that. But Callender instead writes this brief but engrossing scene between King and the sheriff’s son Mikey. Mikey has all the hallmarks of a classic villain, right down to his sunburned face, “tiny blue eyes and pale hair, so pale it might as well be white, too.” But what follows is this odd, awkward moment where Mikey appears to not know how to talk to King about his dead older brother. It’s all over by page 6 but in that time the book had captured my heart. I knew right then that no kid, no matter how jaded a reader, is going to know what Callender has in store for them on these pages.
I guess that Mikey Sanders moment sort of primed me to understand that one of Callender’s other great gifts is the ability to add little specks of nuance and complexity to characters that in another writer’s hands would be tropes. Camille should be the mean girl at school, but then she gets this little moment where she reveals that someone she was close to has died and everyone is surprised, “to hear Camille saying something that sounds so wise and mature – but then Camille turns to Breanna and starts talking about the teddy bear socks she saw Lauren wearing that morning, and the moment’s over before we know it.” King’s dead older brother Khalid used to speak wisdom (with nods to A Wrinkle in Time) in his sleep so in any other book he'd be the sainted departed. Instead, one of his last pieces of advice to King, to ditch Sandy Sanders because otherwise people might think that King was gay too, messes his younger brother up something fierce. And King’s dad feels to me like he’s making a cameo from an adult novel. That man is going through something huge and intense that’s causing him to question truths he’s lived by his whole life, but we’re only able to see what he chooses to show his son. There’s no one in this book that’s perfect or irredeemable.
To write a book about racism and homophobia in Louisiana does not sound particularly surprising. I’m from the North and like many of my fellow Michigan residents, grew up thinking that racism and homophobia were par for the course in the South. But these days, books for kids that indicate why anyone would want to live there are far more interesting to me than books that disdain the location and leave it at that. Callender has the job of invoking a Louisiana that I simply could not know. One full of gators and mosquitoes, sure, but also one where you have family and relatives and where it’s just a short trip to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. To do this, Callender writes beautifully. I don’t get to say that enough about books for kids. So many of them are so intent on their plots that they forget to put any good writing in there. Callender speckles the book with truths. Peppers it. Sprinkles these little truths between the lines frequently but not predictably. And then, most importantly, doesn’t tack on a sweet cheesy ending. It’s a happy book but also a realistic one and those two ideas are not at odds with one another. It earns its happy ending, and gives you the gift of allowing you to enjoy it without a twinge of skepticism.
Anyone can write for kids. Not everyone should. We can all put words on paper, scribble out some plot, and then dump a couple pounds of realistic depressing details into the mix to show what deep, serious writers we are. The best kind of children’s author tempers sadness with earned joy. They dole out the sad and the happy in measures that keep young readers intrigued, but never complacent. The best children’s authors either know how to do this or figure it out, slowly, with each book they write. Kacen Callender seems to have managed the perfect balancing act in King and the Dragonflies. This is why the award committees are gaga over this title. Sure, it talks about pertinent issues and does so with beautiful writing, but for me that’s only half the story. I feel like a kid would actually want to read this book. That if they read those first six pages, they’d be so hooked they’d never want to stop. I’m late to the party in celebrating this book, but now that I’m here, let’s dance until dawn! This is one book that kids and adults alike will read and never ever forget.
A beautiful, poignant, hopeful, yet ultimately bittersweet story of identity, grief and discovering your place in the world.
This is the kind of story you want to put into the hands of young people across the globe. It teaches empathy, being true to yourself and standing up for your right to be who you are. It's also a fantastic example of the different experiences people can have within a shared identity. There are too few books (both in general and in MG) exploring what it's like to be young, gay and Black and learning what that means in terms the world may treat you but this heartfelt, honest exploration of that is one I would recommend in a heartbeat.
(The narration of this book was also beautiful and one I would highly recommend.)
TW: racism, homophobia, domestic abuse due to homophobia
This was such a heartfelt, bittersweet, and poignant portrait of grief and being true to yourself. I loved this!
- Follows Kingston "King" James, a Black boy who lives in the Louisiana bayou with his parents and is grieving the death of his older brother. When his former best friend goes missing and King is the last person to see him, he seeks him out. - Despite being a short book, I'm in awe of what this book explores and with such profoundness and depth too, especially its portrayal of what it's like being a young gay Black boy and coming into one's sexual identity. - It also explores the tenuous friendship between King and Sandy, son of the local sheriff who is gay. They used to be best friends until King's brother told him to stay away from Sandy after overhearing that Sandy is gay. - The atmosphere in this was incredible. It captures the air of living in the country - charming but also imperfect in its bigotry - and imbues it with hints of magical realism. The narrator of this book was fantastic. - I think I loved the portrait of grief the most in this book. It explores pain, hurting, a family shattered by the loss of a loved one, but balances it with healing and acceptance as well.
Callender's second MG is just as beautiful as their first, which isn't an easy thing to achieve. This one is the heartrendingly hopeful tale of a boy named King growing up in the Louisiana bayou, grieving his brother’s sudden death. Khalid had been his idol, and the only thing King knows for sure that he wanted is for King to stay away from Sandy, the gay kid in his class. It’s kind of a problem, since not only did they used to be close friends, but Sandy was the one person who understood King’s feelings. When Sandy disappears and King is the last person to have seen him, he knows it’s time to set King’s rule aside and find his old friend. It’s that journey back to friendship that sets the steps for King to find his way into his future.
Aimed at early teens, the dream talks with King's recently deceased brother Khalid might be a little over the heads of this age group. I liked the variety of maturity levels of the group of kids that hung out together, which is so true at that age. The confusion of King at losing his hero-older brother, and discovering how to reconcile he likes guys more than girls was well written and not overdone. He still liked girls as friends, but didn't like the full girlfriend-thing.
There were holes in the story-line where Sandy (Charlie) was not accounted for that should have raised more red-flags and had more adults seeking better answers. This did reinforce the theme of how the adults don't seem to be listening to the kids that have become young adults with bigger problems. Sure, Sandy's Dad was part of the problem, but when Sandy was found after prolonged absence, there would have been a lot more questions. The ending was almost too clean. I guess that can be good for the intended reader.
This book could be a little tough on anyone that has lost a sibling while young. It is handled very well, but it would trigger lots of memories as visions of Khalid are constant throughout the book.