Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES by Kacen Callender
Introduced by Heavy Medal Award Committee member Charlotte Chung
KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES by Kacen Callender is a tender, affecting, and hopeful story of grief, belonging, and transformation. The story follows protagonist King James, a Black youth who is coping with the unanticipated loss of his older brother Khalid. Callender masterfully weaves together King’s processing of grief, growth, and transformation.
Callender’s nuanced representation of grief is one that children and adults will both relate to and perhaps find solace in. For example, Callender beautifully captures the surreal feelings that follow an unexpected loss of a young person–where the world seems forever changed by this unnaturally early death, yet paradoxically also appears to move on in the same way as before the loss. From their opening line of
The dragonflies live down by the bayou, but there’s no way to know which one’s my brother (1)
Callender immerses the reader into a present that is both familiar and unfamiliar. The surreal feelings of King’s grief are also reflected in King’s vivid descriptions of the lush Louisiana landscape and recollections of Khalid’s fantastical dreamy musings. Finally, as grief and loss are felt at both the individual and communal levels, Callender also takes care to depict the many ways in which Khalid’s passing is processed by King, his mother, father, and aunt individually and collectively.
Callender’s attentive and compassionate rendering of King and his family’s mourning also follows how King, his family, and his community navigate and confront the intersections of toxic masculinity, racism, and homophobia. King’s mourning over Khalid coalesces with King coming to terms with being gay. Reflecting on homophobic statements made by his friends and family, King is reluctant to accept and share his sexuality. King eventually shares his sexuality with his family, and his relationship with them does change, but in an unexpected way. More specifically, King and his family realize that they have been impacted by Khalid’s death and learning of King’s sexuality, but their love for one another does not waver. They respond to the changes and uncertainty, knowing that their love for one another is constant. Overall, in KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES the many rich themes and metaphors as well as the representation of toxic masculinity, racism, and homophobia, are well-balanced and well-articulated to a middle school audience. The book would therefore lend well to a meaningful middle school class read and discussion.
KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES is not only distinguished for being one much-needed novel to address a gap in the middle school book publishing world by sharing stories of Black LGBTQ+ children. It is also an eminent novel for its nuanced depictions of a child’s and family’s grief and growth, Black familial relations, and diverse LGBTQ+ coming-of-age experiences (with the juxtapositions of King and Sandy’s experiences). This book should be a staple in any personal, public, and school library collection and should be a serious contender for major awards and accolades.
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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