book review: King and the Dragonflies

Title: King and the Dragonflies
author: Kacen Callender
date: Scholastic, February, 2020
main character: Kingston “King” Reginald James
middle grade fiction
Review is based on an advanced copy

King’s world is drenched in grief and Kacen Callender’s writing makes it palpable. It is sheer grief, utter sadness that engulfs King in this story because of the loss of his best friend and only brother. But, King has this dragonfly. He is struggling to accept that the lifeless form the casket in front of him was his brother, Khalid. For him, there’s something in the way vibrant, shimmering dragonfly that just landed on the edge of the casket  indicates that this is now Khalid, much more so than that body does. Khalid even confirms this in King’s dreams.

The James family is solidly middle class in their work and values. Dad works construction while mom works in the post office. A working-class sentiment is conveyed through dad’s sternness that guides the family and the assignment of tasks that expects mom to cook. This socio-economic structure that forms their lives breaks down with the death of their oldest son.

Callender is really good at world building. They pays attention to location, class, identity and other elements that layer meaning into a story. in their world, Khalid the dragonfly visits his brother in his sleep. And, Black is the default.

“Okay, so here’s the rundown. There’s Darrell, who’s shorter than everyone around but will beat anyone at basketball (and then laugh in their face when he’s won). There’s Anthony, who is white and probably the most mature, on account of the fact that he’s fourteen and was held back because he wasn’t doing his homework (he says he’s too busy helping out his dad with the crawfishing), but he’s also the kind of person who’ll listen and won’t judge or be mean for any reason. (p.17)

In the way they only mention when a character is White, Callender sets the default here as Black and Black culture dominates the story.

In the same way that the family lost its identity, so did King because he defined himself through the lens of his brother. In the aftermath of this loss, Callender takes King on a journey of self-definition and actualization. Nothing will bring this southern Black boy out of Khalid’s shadow quicker than a gay white male friend, Charles “Sandy” Sanders. It seems Sandy will be the key to King’s personal liberation. Through this relationship, King comes to terms with death/life, honesty, loyalty, courage/fear and relationships. Khalid’s death left a huge hole to for King to fill!

With all there is to like about this story, there are two things that stand out for me. First, it was character development, particularly the way Callender writes Mikey (Sandy’s older brother) with such complexity even though he has so little space in the text.

“Mikey finally speaks. “Sorry about your brother,” he says.

I don’t answer him. I don’t know if he’s serious, if he’s joking, or if he’s just being plain mean.

He shrugs, like he can hear all my questions and he doesn’t know any of the answers himself. “What’re you doing out here?” he says, eyes scanning the trees all around me.

I still don’t say a single word. Is he trying to figure out if I’m on this road by myself? Trying to see if he can get away with killing me, too?

He looks my way again, still sucking his teeth. Must be a piece of food stuck way in there. “We’re headed into town.” He rubs his nose. “Want to hop in the back?”

Something possesses me and I’m able to move. I shake my head once, hard and fast.

Mikey shifts in his seat. “You know, your brother–” I’m not sure what he’s going to say, and maybe he isn’t so sure either, because he stops himself right there. “See you around.” (p. 4-5)

Mikey clearly isn’t a nice guy. But are we seeing compassion here, or even more cruelty? Rather than being a cardboard bully, Mikey isn’t so easy to figure out.

Second, I really appreciate how King questions his sexual orientation. Without giving too much away, King is a perfect age for not only not knowing what it means to have a romantic relationship, but not even knowing if he wants such a relationship with a boy, or with a girl. Even within the confines of this southern, middle class Black family, King is set free.

I recommend this for libraries and homes. There’s enough suspense to make this a good read aloud.