Kacen Callender is a new discovery for me, and one for which I am grateful! King is a brilliantly developed character to whom a lot of middle grade readers will relate.
Kingston James (King) is 12 years old. He is dealing with confusion and acceptance of his own sexuality at the same time he is navigating the painful grief of his 16-year-old brother Khalid’s sudden death. At his brother’s funeral King saw a dragonfly alight on the edge of Khalid’s casket and convinced himself that Khalid WAS that dragonfly. So now every day after school, before heading home. King goes to the bayou where there is a large cluster of dragonflies hoping that the specific dragonfly he believes to be Khalid will come to him. Some part of King believes he will be able to have some type of closure over the painful loss of Khalid if he could just communicate with his embodiment in the dragonfly.
A few months before the beginning of the story King’s friend Sandy had told King that he was gay and in return King had shared that he thought he might be as well. Khalid had overheard their conversation and told King later that he should not be associated with Sandy any longer. King had then told Sandy they could no longer be friends. Soon after we begin King’s story Sandy runs away and asks King for help. King ends up helping Sandy and moving closer to acknowledging to himself that he is also gay.
Overcome with grief over the loss of his brother and the difficult challenge of figuring out who he is sexually and how that fits into who he is and wants to be as a whole person, King is fully engaged in the swirling morass of thought and emotion that accompany both. He is tortured by the discrepancy between the way he feels and the messages he has received about sexuality:
I’d heard him talk about gay people before. I’d heard him say that is was wrong. Unnatural. Men are supposed to be with women, because that’s just the way it is. And somehow, for my dad, this rule was especially true for Black boys like me.
He aches for his brother and has conflicting feelings about one of their last exchanges regarding the overheard conversation between Sandy and him. King experiences feelings of guilt because he has some conflicting feelings about some of the last things his brother said to him:
He made me feel ashamed for who I am. Guilt burns through me for thinking that. For having anger for Khalid, when he isn’t even here to defend himself. Explain himself. When he doesn’t even have the chance to apologize for it.
All of these thoughts and feelings are completely understandable in King’s circumstances. But he doesn’t know that. Most tweens and teenagers don’t. We can’t know what we don’t know yet. And for King, his frustration and grief are (not unexpectedly) showing up through a change in his behavior and attitude:
I was never angry before. I’d get mad at my mom and dad and at Khalid, but I was never angry like I am now. Anger boiling through my blood and raging through my lungs. Angry for no good reason except for the fact that I’m standing here and living and breathing, and Khalid is not.
A lot of our painful emotions like anxiety, fear and sorrow can morph into anger because it seems to be more acceptable (in US society) to be angry than to be unhappy. Who among us has not experienced some form of this kind of inexplicable anger? Guilt often accompanies grief–and feeling happy about something after a loved one has died. Fear of rejection is also universal. It is especially prevalent in adolescents who are navigating a sexuality that is different from their parents’. Unfortunately, I have seen this play out both positively and negatively in the lives of close friends. King’s expresses that pain with deep insight:
I didn’t think my dad could hurt me this much. Never thought it was possible. But every second he refuses to look my way–every time he grunts without talking to me–a crack splits into me, and I’m pretty sure that if he cracks me enough, I’m eventually going to shatter.
The fear of parental and peer rejection is also present to some degree at some point in all of our lives. The struggle to acknowledge and embrace who I am despite the negative reaction I may get from other people is something I strive to achieve at the beginning of (and sometimes at various moments within) each day. It’s hard. It’s especially hard when you feel alone.
The only thing that didn’t sit exactly right with me is the whole dragonfly image/metaphor. I understand structurally why it’s incorporated into King’s story. I did not find that particular element making much of a contribution to King’s story(the only reason this was not a 5-star read for me), but the rest of the book is so stunningly good, it doesn’t really matter that much.
King and the Dragon Flies is a beautifully honest story about moving through grief and grappling with defining one’s own emerging sexuality. There is pain and confusion…and joy…wrapped up in both things. This book brilliantly weaves them together, maintaining a solid grip on reality.
Callender says that King’s journey is through grief, self-acceptance and belonging. All of those ideas come across in King’s story. I rarely see passages as clearly articulated as those of King’s thoughts and feelings. King and the Dragon Flies will be an important read for a lot of young readers. In their Acknowledgements, Callender thanks readers, teachers and librarians
who have worked to make sure every child is reflected in the stories that they read so that they can know they aren’t alone.
To that I would add my own gratitude to Kacen Callender for accomplishing the same thing with King and the Dragon Flies.