Kacen Callender’s middle grade novel King and the Dragonflies is a stunning follow-up to their 2019 Stonewall Book Award and Lambda Literary Award-winning novel Hurricane Child. It deals with pain and with love and all the ways that they meet, and it makes something soaring and beautiful out of them. It’s the kind of book that I wish I’d read twenty years ago and I am so grateful that it exists today.
Khalid talks in his sleep. He tells his little brother King about the worlds he visits each night, worlds with mushrooms as tall as trees, where time exists all at once, and where Khalid has the wings of a dragonfly. After Khalid dies, King holds onto these stories like a tether to the afterlife. He rereads them in his journal, relives them, and visits the dragonflies on the bayou, waiting for Khalid to make contact.
He can’t tell anyone that Khalid is a dragonfly, of course. No one would believe him. And not only that, but the world has kept moving without Khalid—their parents are trying to make things normal again, and now King’s former best friend, Sandy, has gone missing. King is weighed down by all the things he can’t say: that his winged brother visited him at his own funeral, that he knows where Sandy is hiding, and that he might like boys the way he’s supposed to like girls. He’s supposed to stay strong like his dad tells him to, but the one person he needs to talk to isn’t there.
King and the Dragonflies follows King as he deals with grief, identity, and the complexities of familial love. For such a short novel, it packs a lot of punch, and never once feels rushed or didactic—it lets emotions be messy and lets characters be human. Khalid, despite existing only in memory and description throughout the novel, is a wonderful example of this. One of the main conflicts of the story centers around Khalid telling King, just before he dies, to stop hanging out with Sandy because “you don’t want anyone to think you’re gay, too, do you?” And so King’s grief over his loss is tied up with his own self-hate and denial. He can’t be friends with Sandy because it’s not what his big brother would have wanted. He can’t be gay, because then Khalid would have been ashamed of him. Part of King’s grieving process is to let go of the perfect vision he has of Khalid—not just to learn how to be himself, but to keep growing past the self that he was the day that Khalid died.
King’s parents are treated with a similarly deft hand. His father teaches his sons to follow strict gender roles and King is sure he’d hate him if he were gay. But his father is never reduced to that, either; his love for King is clear as day, and his fear—that white society will have one more thing to hold against his son—is made real and justifiable, even as his response to it is harmful. Callender lets identity—masculinity especially—be complicated, and lets characters grow and change, rather than reducing them to one characteristic. The love that this family has for one another, and the love King has for his friends, is palpable throughout the novel—and you can’t help but love them too, for all their flaws.
Callender writes not just about love of people, but of place too. From King’s small hometown in Louisiana—full of racial violence, gossip, and tenderness alike—to the jubilance and melody of Mardis Gras, it’s impossible to separate the setting from the rest of the story. In the same way that King’s relationships with people are allowed to be complex, so too does King yearn to escape his home and to revel in its beauty and familiarity. And besides all that, Louisiana is so carefully and lovingly rendered. The bayou is present even in the sticky heat evoked by the title.
This book will make your heart ache in the best possible way. It’s a riveting, emotionally real thing—as lived-in as a childhood bedroom, and incredibly kind and generous at its core. As an adult reader, I can’t speak with any authority on how a young person would react to King, but I’m certain I’d have been moved by it as a queer southerner. I also think that it’s vital for authors not to talk down to young readers and to let them grapple with difficult themes in a safe space. Callender is an aficionado in this regard and at allowing the adults of their novels to move beyond hero or bogeyman. The failure of adults to protect kids and prepare them for the perils of adulthood is a frequent theme in books for young readers, but King eloquently shows the ways that those failures are passed down out of fear and protectiveness, and sometimes repaired, sometimes stuck in amber. It shows the ways that kids bring their own wisdom and teaching to their parents as well, and is hopeful in the face of generational pain and trauma.
I can’t praise Callender enough. Very few adult novels attack these issues so gracefully or with such compassion, let alone doing so in under 300 pages. Share this book with the young people in your life, but don’t forget to read it yourself before you do.
King and the Dragonflies is available from Scholastic Press.
Em Nordling reads, writes, and manages research in Louisville, KY.