I don’t know what we did to get so lucky, but queer kidlit seriously struck gold when it got Kacen Callender, who seems to be multiplying their glorious catalog every five minutes. Their first MG, Hurricane Child, is both a Lambda and Stonewall award winner, so you know this newest, King and the Dragonflies, which releases from Scholastic on February 4, 2020, had better fly onto your TBR ASAP! Here are the details:
In a small but turbulent Louisiana town, one boy’s grief takes him beyond the bayous of his backyard, to learn that there is no right way to be yourself.
Twelve-year-old Kingston James is sure his brother Khalid has turned into a dragonfly. When Khalid unexpectedly passed away, he shed what was his first skin for another to live down by the bayou in their small Louisiana town. Khalid still visits in dreams, and King must keep these secrets to himself as he watches grief transform his family.
It would be easier if King could talk with his best friend, Sandy Sanders. But just days before he died, Khalid told King to end their friendship, after overhearing a secret about Sandy—that he thinks he might be gay. “You don’t want anyone to think you’re gay too, do you?”
But when Sandy goes missing, sparking a town-wide search, and King finds his former best friend hiding in a tent in his backyard, he agrees to help Sandy escape from his abusive father, and the two begin an adventure as they build their own private paradise down by the bayou and among the dragonflies. As King’s friendship with Sandy is reignited, he’s forced to confront questions about himself and the reality of his brother’s death.
The Thing About Jellyfish meets The Stars Beneath Our Feet in this story about loss, grief, and finding the courage to discover one’s identity, from the award-winning author of Hurricane Child.
And here’s the incredibly stunning cover, with art by Tonya Engel and design by Baily Crawford!
But wait, there’s more! Keep reading for a guest post by author Kacen Callender on the inspiration behind the book!
Elizabeth Gilbert has a beautiful TedTalk on the expectations of artists, and the concept that there’s a source of ideas and creativity that we humans are sometimes granted access to. It’s a thought that’s stuck with me for years now: that writers are only tools who tap into some sort of stream of energy and creativity, gifted with stories by the universe—stories that the divine wants us to tell.
It may seem a little too New Age-y for some, but I feel this is true even more after my experience with King and the Dragonflies. I had a deadline approaching and sat down to write the novel, nervous and unsure of where the story would go, or what I wanted to say. As if I’d heard a whisper, I suddenly knew that the main character was a boy named King, and that he thought his brother Khalid had turned into a dragonfly. Almost the entirety of King and the Dragonflies came to me as though a dream over the next few weeks after that, spilling onto the page—the fastest manuscript I’ve ever drafted.
When the novel begins, King’s brother Khalid has already unexpectedly and tragically passed away. King has also decided that he can no longer speak to his best friend Sandy because he’s gay, and King is afraid others will think he’s gay as well. It doesn’t help that King is questioning his identity and is afraid that others will learn his secret. As the novel progresses, King struggles with his identity as a gay black boy in the south, centering around something I myself had been told as a child: “Black people can’t be gay. If they are gay, it’s because they’ve been around a white gay person too much.”
It sounds ridiculous, but after writing and sharing this novel with some early readers, I’ve learned that other black people have been told the same thing. We’re in a society that usually only celebrates queer people who are white. Black queer people tend to be invisible, to the point that others have tried to speak us out of existence. If there aren’t enough stories showing black, queer people, then where is the proof that we do exist—not only for ignorant folks, but for the black queer people who need to know that they aren’t alone?
Beyond the idea that black people can’t be queer, there’s also the fear of facing two stigmas: bad enough that we’re black in a racist United States, but to have to face homophobia from all sides, regardless of race, as well? It’s a real fear that many black, queer people struggle with, and one that I explore in King and the Dragonflies for any young reader who worries about the same things.
By the end of the novel, King has evolved, both due to grief for his brother, and for the courage he must find to face his identity. I’ve always been super interested in symbolism in dreams, so months after finishing the first draft and working on revisions, I suddenly had the urge to look up the dream meaning of dragonflies. Change, transformation, self-realization. I can’t think of a stronger symbol for this novel.
Writing King and the Dragonflies was an emotional, raw experience, exactly like waking up from a vivid dream, one that I’m still reeling from in some ways. I can’t take the credit for being a transmitter or antennae of some kind, passing along messages and stories from the beyond, but I can be grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to help share King and his story with the world.