Review of the Day: King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender
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.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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