Tag Archives: Kacen Callender

Exclusive Cover Reveal: King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender

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!

Preorder: Amazon | B&N | IndieBound

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.

Better Know an Author: Kacen Callender

It’s one thing to debut with a great addition to queer kidlit canon, particularly one that fills a huge gap, and with something beautifully written, no less. It’s another to do it in both Middle Grade and Young Adult in the same damn year. But that’s exactly what this month’s featured author, Kacen Callender, is doing with their 2018, and trust me when I say you wanna be along for the ride.

You, Kacen Callender, have had A Year! I’m gonna be greedy and jump ahead to your next release, because lord knows I am dying for everyone else to read the incredibly cute glory of This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story. What can you share about it, and what’s your absolute favorite thing in it?

Thank you so much, that really means a lot! In Epic Love Story, Nathan Bird is afraid of letting himself fall in love–to him, happy endings only belong in rom-coms, not in real life–but his resolve against romance is tested when a long-lost childhood best friend, Oliver James, returns to town. Lots of cuteness ensues. 🙂

My absolute favorite thing in the novel? I’m pretty proud of the intersectionality, and seeing brown queer people in love and unapologetically happy. It makes my heart soar whenever I re-read the book, and is a love letter to myself and my QPOC sibs in a lot of ways: we absolutely deserve epic love stories, too.

Labels are conspicuously absent in Epic Love Story, which I imagine was a conscious choice. Is shifting away from labels something you’d like to see more of, or was it more of a “right for your characters” situation?

Glad you caught that! It was definitely a purposeful choice to shift away from labels in the book.

Labels are a source of pride for me, personally, and a way to connect with others who are also queer, trans, and/or nonbinary, for example. But when I’m around my community of QPOC friends and self-made family, we never really talk about labels. It’s understood, and generally unsaid, that one person can be into another regardless of gender identity. If we talk about labels, it’s usually for the sake of non-queer folk around us.

This is Kind of an Epic Love Story is set in a perfect world, where there’s no anti-queer climate for the characters to worry about (or racism, for that matter)—where labels aren’t necessary, because the idea of queer sexuality isn’t groundbreaking. This is what I hope is a perfect escape for QPOC readers, since we already deal with so much homophobia and racism in our every day lives.

Of course, you also released a Middle Grade this year, the wonderful Hurricane Child, which is a standout for so many reasonsa queer girl of color, a Caribbean setting… What has response to the book been like, and who’s your dream reader for it?

The response to Hurricane Child has been amazing. I really never dreamed that it would receive the level of love and support its gotten, which I’m so incredibly grateful for.

My dream reader is ultimately anyone who feels alone and isolated, and reads and feels empowered by Caroline Murphy and her journey to be herself—that she deserves to exist, and deserves to be happy, no matter what. Whenever I need a reminder of that myself, I just take a look at the cover, and that powerful expression on Caroline’s face.

You also somehow managed to be an editor at Little, Brown among all this, which is just wild to me. What drew you to the queer titles you worked on as an editor, and what would you like to see more of?

Well, the main queer title I worked on during my time at LBYR was Ashley Herring Blake’s Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, which to this day remains one of the most beautiful middle grade novels in existence. Ashley is such a talented author, and I know she’ll blow everyone away with her second MG novel, The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James, which is out in March 2019 (I know, I know, such a long wait…)

As for what I’d like to see more of, I did want to see more queer MG books, and I do think that there’s still such a large gap to fill, but I’ve also been so uplifted by the number of recent queer MG books (such as Jen Petro-Roy’s P.S. I Miss You, Barbara Dee’s Star CrossedOne True Way by Shannon Hitchcock, and more)…

Right now, my focus is on seeing more intersectionality. I’d love to see more queer people of color as main characters, in all sorts of novels—and especially more rom-coms where the only tension is if the main character and love interest are going to make out or not, and where you know there’s going to be a happy ending. Unfortunately, historically, queer folks, and especially queer people of color, haven’t been guaranteed happy endings; it feels revolutionary to me to see stories where we are guaranteed that happily ever after.

As someone who straddled both author and editor positions, and particularly within the same category, what were the biggest challenges and the biggest perks?

The biggest challenge in the end unfortunately did become juggling a little too much, and spreading myself too thin. I wanted to help diversify the industry, so I tried very hard to continue working in publishing, as one of the few black editors in children’s books (and I believe the only black trans editor)… but the work became a little too overwhelming, sadly, and I started to become curious about other potential opportunities (my position at LBYR was my first out of grad school, and I’ve never explored any other fields!), so I decided to leave my position in the end, though I hope to now help other people of color and queer people of color find positions in publishing.

The most difficult part of leaving has been parting with incredible authors I’ve been honored to work with, but I know I had nothing to do with their talent, and that they’ll continue to flourish!

The biggest perk was definitely humility. Seeing the incredible talent of authors I worked with was very grounding in my own work, and a reminder that there are so many wonderful authors with so much extraordinary talent, and that no one author is more important than another, or that no one story is more important than another. I’m determined to keep this mindset as I move forward, in all of the work that I do.

I ordinarily ask people who the characters are in media who’ve resonated with them, but you already had a fantastic Twitter thread back in May about Adam from Degrassi. What was it about that character that really stuck with you and made a difference in your own life?

Adam not only changed my life, but I’m pretty sure he’s saved my life, too. Adam had a problematic ending on the show, but watching his story and journey allowed me to see similarities in him that I’d thought and experienced, but had never been able to put a name to before. Suddenly, everything shifted into place, and a few years later, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I’m not sure I was living life before–going through the motions, maybe—but now, as people around me say, I’m “glowing.” 🙂

Adam’s absolutely inspired me, and I hope to have a YA with a trans main character named Felix coming out soon!

Lightning round, based on things from This is Kind of an Epic Love Story:

1) Third favorite movie? My favorite movies are all Pixar, and my third favorite happens to be Coco. 🙂
2) Favorite movie character? Chiron, for all that he symbolizes.
3) Favorite writing craft book? Definitely Story by Robert McKee. Technically a film/screenwriting craft book, but novelists can absolutely learn a lot from his plotting advice as well.
4) Favorite Pandora station? While writing Epic Love Story, it was Bon Iver! Now, it’s Sia.
 

And speaking of which, there are some great shoutouts in the book, including ones to authors Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Gabby Rivera. Who are your insta-read authors?

So many! Right now, definitely Sáenz, but also Nina LaCour and David Levithan.

Shifting back to editor life, we’ve spoken before about how you’d love to help more people of color, and specifically Black editors, get involved in publishing. What tips do you have for PoC trying to break into publishing on the business/editorial side?

My biggest piece of advice would be to follow groups like POC in Publishing and We Need Diverse Books on social media for regular tips and job opportunities, and to take advantage of programs like Representation Matters. Reach out to editors for informational interviews, ask questions, be curious and passionate!

What’s something on the topic of queer lit/publishing you wish was talked about more?

I wish intersectionality was discussed a little more. I want to see a lot more queer people of color as main characters, and I want more stories by and featuring queer authors with disabilities, queer authors with different religions, queer authors with different socio-economic statuses, and a mix of all of the above, and more. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

*This article was updated with the author’s chosen name in January 2020. No other changes were made to the content.

Kacen Callender is the author of Hurricane Child and This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story, and is committed to expanding diversity in children’s books. Kacen loves playing RPG video games and watching soul-sucking reality TV shows in their free time. They really wish they had a dog.