BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender [in Shelf Awareness]

Kacen Callender, who identifies as queer, trans POC, wrote the Stonewall and Lambda winner Hurricane Child as Kheryn Callender; they debuted their name change in May 2019 with the announcement of the sale of their upcoming transgender YA novel Felix Ever After. Callender’s second middle-grade title, King and the Dragonflies, deftly treads familiar, challenging territory – race, sexual identity, death – again in a sensitive and age-appropriate manner.

Kingston Reginald James hates his name. He prefers just King, but thinks people look at him like he’s a “fool” when he tells them his full name is King James. His parents’ regal choice was deliberate, “so I’d remember who I am, where I came from, that I’ve got ancestors who used to rule their own empires before they were stolen away.” King doesn’t feel like royalty, though. These days, he’s mostly just scared. Older brother Khalid would say, “No way you can live your life as a coward. If you’re always too busy hiding, then you’re not really living, are you?” But Khalid is dead at only 16, and the family, perhaps King most of all, is struggling to move on.

Khalid is buried, but King knows he’s just swapped his human form for that of a dragonfly. King’s too scared to tell anyone – especially his parents – for fear they’ll send him off to a therapist. He’s also afraid to admit how much he misses his friend Sandy. King severed their relationship after Sandy told King he was gay; Khalid overheard Sandy’s confession and warned King to stay away. Being black in small-town Louisiana is provocation enough, Khalid said, “Black people aren’t allowed to be gay. We’ve already got the whole world hating us because of our skin. We can’t have them hating us because of something like that also.” Besides, even if Sandy is nothing like his family, everyone knows they’ve got multi-generational connections to the KKK, and his older brother Mikey helped “beat a black man to death.” Then Sandy goes missing and King might be the only one who knows where he is or, more importantly, why he ran.

In conflating Sandy’s family’s hateful background with King’s own rejection of homosexuality, Callender is especially effective at exposing the many ways we unfairly dismiss, reject, and harm one another. “You think my granddad is bad because he was a racist … You’re doing the same. Exact. Thing,” Sandy schools King about his internalized anti-gay fears. Beyond the robust roster of crucial issues (unpunished murder, racist law enforcement, child abuse, runaways), Callender’s King and the Dragonflies is ultimately a resonating family story of tragic loss, shattering consequences, and finding “a new normal” enabled by unconditional love.

Shelf Talker: Kacen Callender’s second middle-grade novel deftly confronts racism and homophobia as a black teen struggles to find “a new normal” after the sudden death of his brother.

Review: “Children’s Review,” Shelf Awareness Pro, December 18, 2019

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2020


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