Monday, March 30, 2020

King and the Dragonflies

King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender. Grades 5-8. Scholastic, 2020. 272 pages. Review copy provided by publisher. 


King's brother is a dragonfly. 

At least, he's pretty sure. After Khalid died and a dragonfly alit on the coffin, King just had the strongest feeling that he knew where his brother was. Khalid has shed his first skin and is now living as a dragonfly. At least King can go down to the swamp near his house and visit. 

Things might be easier if King could talk to his best friend Sandy about how he's feeling. But right before Khalid died, he warned King to stay away from Sandy. Sandy had told King he might be gay and King didn't want other people to think he was gay, too, did he? King wasn't brave enough to stand up to his beloved brother and now the last conversation they had is eating at King's soul. 

But when Sandy disappears and the whole town shows up to search, King is the only one who can find Sandy and help him escape his abusive father... if he's brave enough. 

My thoughts: 

Oh, my heart. King's going to be with me for a long, long time. This book is a layered painting of emotion: King's grieving the death of his brother and dealing with how his family has changed in the face of grief. He's also dealing with his guilt over betraying his best friend and the pain and uncertainty of figuring out his own identity - and whether or not his parents will accept him. He thinks he knows what Khalid would have thought and that's another kind of pain and guilt. 

But although that's a lot of big emotions, the story never feels mired in them. King is a bright and loving kid and he keeps putting one foot in front of the other, even when he's not sure where the path will lead. The way that Callender looks at homosexuality through the lens of race is pretty unique in children's fiction, particularly in middle grade fiction. And this is a story that a lot of readers are going to relate to. It's ultimately a hopeful coming out story. 

The Louisiana bayou is a character in itself here. From King's forays to the edge of the swamp to wait for Khalid (and to cry, let's be honest) to the hiding place King arranges for Sandy, you can feel the muggy air and hear the buzz of insects. Readers who love a strong sense of place will be right at home alongside King here.

I know it's early in the year, but this is one of my favorite reads so far. Don't miss it. 


I would hand this book to fans of Jewell Parker Rhodes, particularly Ninth Ward for its evocative Louisiana setting. While Ninth Ward has more magical realism, there's a bit of it in King's story, as well. These stories both feature African American kids in Louisiana dealing with emotionally intense situations.

For another story of a gay tween boy dealing with the grief of losing a family member in the rural South, turn to The Whispers by Greg Howard. Here's another Southern tale with a touch of magical realism as Riley searches for magical wood creatures that will bring his mother back to him. 

And if the rich bayou setting draws you in, don't miss The Healing Spell by Kimberley Griffiths Little, a tale about Livie who blames herself for her mother's accident and seeks to find a spell that will help heal her mom.