Book Review: King and the Dragonflies

Feb 18, 2021 by Erin Yun
The face of Kingston James, a boy, is on the left side of the book cover only showing half of his face. He’s surrounded by greenery and dragonflies are scattered around the cover.

I haven’t read many books this winter. Maybe it’s because I’ve been busy writing or spending time with family. Maybe it’s because winter is hibernation season for me. Whatever the reason, as soon as I started reading Kacen Callender’s King and the Dragonflies, all my excuses flew out the window. I finished the book in one sitting.
Told in the first-person point of view, Callender’s prose is energetic, lovely, and whimsical. Often, I found myself lingering on poetic phrases and rereading sentences that resonated with me. Although it’s a middle-grade book with accessible language for younger kids, King and the Dragonflies will captivate readers of any age.
When his brother Khalid unexpectedly passes away, Kingston James, called King, is sure that Khalid remains on Earth in the form of a dragonfly. Every day after school, King explores the nearby bayou, searching for his brother among the swarm of dragonflies. It’s here that he encounters Sandy, an old friend King disconnected with after discovering Sandy is gay. The two boys rekindle their friendship as King tries to protect Sandy from his abusive father and deals with his own grief. King learns to embrace the parts of him he has always kept hidden.  
One of the major themes this book explores is the different kinds of prejudice that exist, and how racism and homophobia intersect with and differ from each other. Sandy is a gay white boy with a racist family. Although he doesn’t experience racism in the same way King does, Sandy is ostracized by many kids at school and his own father because of his sexual orientation. This leads King to wonder if people fear Sandy like they fear black people, or if it’s “different because people can see the color of [King’s] skin, but no one can look at Sandy and see who he loves” (p. 103).
Meanwhile, King faces both racism and homophobia as he struggles with opening up about his identity. This is complicated by his late brother, Khalid. Since readers see Khalid through King’s eyes, we like him immediately. He was dreamy and imaginative—and clearly cared about King. But it was Khalid who told King to stop being friends with Sandy, specifically because he didn’t want others to think King is gay. This struggle between being true to himself and trying to conform to the person his brother wanted him to be is at the heart of King’s story.


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