When a dragonfly alights on the edge of the casket at his brother’s funeral, Kingston Reginald James is convinced Khalid isn’t really gone, just changed into one of the dragonflies that flutter around the bayou near his Louisiana home. In King and the Dragonflies, award-winning author Kacen Callender chronicles King’s troubled path through his own and his parents’ grief over Khalid’s death, and King’s understanding and acceptance of himself.
Shortly before he died, Khalid, perhaps intuiting that his little brother had questions about his own sexual orientation, warned King away from his best friend, “Sandy” Sanders. Khalid had overheard Sandy, who is white, tell King he was gay, and he didn’t want people thinking King was gay, too. “Black people aren’t allowed to be gay, King,” Khalid had told him. “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 too.”
Before King could work through his feelings about what his adored big brother had said, Khalid died of a heart attack. What can King do but obey Khalid’s last piece of brotherly advice? He tells Sandy that they can’t be friends anymore, to the puzzlement of both Sandy and their circle of shared friends.
To complicate matters, Sandy’s own older brother is reputed to have killed a Black man, and his father is the town’s notoriously racist sheriff. In contrast to King’s loving parents, Sandy’s mother has abandoned the family and King suspects that his father is beating him. When Sandy runs away, King finds him and takes him to a cabin that Khalid, a constant sleep-talker, had mentioned one night. While the rest of the town is searching for the runaway, King visits him, at first to sneak him food, but soon to hang out with him and pick up the pieces of their friendship. The vividly described bayou country is a fitting backdrop for their reconciliation.
Despite — or perhaps partly because of — his toxic relationship with his father, Sandy is further down the road of understanding his sexuality than is King. He challenges King to be honest with himself and his family, but King is understandably reluctant to cause even more stress to his parents, who are still reeling over their older son’s unexpected death.
Through conversations with the self-sufficient Sandy and his memories of conversations with Khalid, King ultimately gathers the courage to examine himself, his relationships with family and friends, and his feelings over Khalid’s troubling advice and sudden loss.
Callender’s previous middle-grade novel, Hurricane Child, won the 2019 Lambda Literary Award and the 2019 Stonewall Book Award, and was named a Kirkus Best Book of 2018. The author of two young adult novels and an adult novel, Callender writes in a spare, clean style. King and the Dragonflies is simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting. King’s voice has a believable middle-grade tone, and his confusion and distress over how to navigate through this difficult time of his life is raw and honest.
None of the characters — not the violent Sheriff Sanders, not King’s revered older brother, not King himself — is defined by a single characteristic. All of the characters are struggling in their own way.
A possible exception is Sandy, whose integrity and refusal to pretend to be something he is not finally inspire King to come to terms with his own reality.
Toward the end of the story, King says, “even though there’s a lot I need to be forgiven for — even though there’s a lot I’ve done wrong — I know being who I am isn’t one of them.” Thanks to Callender’s deft and heartfelt storytelling, the reader knows that King has found his way.
Tracy Barrett is a writer who lives in Nashville. Her most recent book, Freefall Summer, was published in 2018 by Charlesbridge Teen.