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Guest Blogger Post: KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES

KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES explores the question of what makes a man, a man. It examines how adults answer this question and the deep impacts it can have on the young men that are listening. How the consequences of that answer can be internalized and the harm will last far past when we are gone.

The story begins with Kingston James, King for short, having to deal  with the sudden and traumatic death of his 17 year old all-star older brother Khalid. There are various ways that Callender analyzes grief; from the way that King is visited by Khalid in his dreams and believes his older brother lives on as a dragonfly to the way that King’s parents shut down when they learn about the death of their child, but also feel it necessary for their younger child to continue living despite their grief.  

Other ways Callender illustrates grief are more subtle. Grief can also reside in the conversations that we have and the words, both said and unsaid, the dead leave behind and their impact on the living. Through the introduction of King’s ex-best friend Sandy Sanderson, we learn that good intentions do not always stop the hurt that certain words cause. When  Khalid overheard a private conversation between Sandy and King in which they talked about their sexuality, the result was that one of the last things Khalid told King to do before he died was to abandon his best friend out of fear. When King does this, not only abandoning his friend, but internalizing the idea that there would be something wrong with his peers thinking he was gay, he is met with the added grief of losing his brother, but also best friend when they needed each other the most.

Healing for King comes in the form of helping his friend face his own issues with homophobia and abuse, but coming to the understanding that he can love his brother, honor his memory, despite being hurt and disappointed in his brother’s decisions and finally accepting that some conversations weren’t ever going to happen, not even in dreams. 

I not only think that KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES fits with the criteria of the Newberry for its portrayal of grief, but also its vital nuanced conversation about questioning one’s sexuality. 
I could not talk about this book without also mentioning the phenomenal narration of Ron Butler on the audiobook. The combination of his voice and Callender’s words brought this story to life and I felt like I was right alongside King for his journey, and yes, it did involve some tears. 

Guest Blogger Lynette is an Army veteran, mother of two, and works in a library in Coastal Georgia. When she’s not at the library she is with her kids and either reading or thinking about the next thing to read.

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Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    I thought King was an especially well developed character. He’s unsure and not ready to face some things, and sometimes lets other opinions and fear guide his words and choices. Very much a 12 year old. But he’s also strong and brave, and though he makes missteps with his friends, he rises to the occasion when it matters most. Though racism and homophobia are central to the book, we don’t feel like King is just placed there as a vehicle to explore those topics. I think readers will know King should reject Khalid’s words about Sandy, we understand why they carry so much weight with King, and how difficult it is when he finally does.

  2. ESE Librarian Bob says:

    Thanks for the evaluation, Stephen! I was waiting to see if I would get any comments. I notice that while Betsy Bird has it on her Newbery 2021 predictions, she still hasn’t reviewed it.

    I’m biracial from Birmingham, AL, so I’ve been thinking a lot about his one. Thanks to Lynette for her blog. I agree grief and toxic masculinity are major themes. I think I saw someone else point out that the title is close to Lord of the Flies, so I won’t take credit for that observation. Obviously, it’s also the first MG book with a gay Black MC, and is written by a Black gay masc author. Black homophobia is a major issue–as it was in Callender’s debut Hurricane Child. The idea that to be gay is to be white. This is daring material but not surprising to some of us.

    I think the most daring thing Callender does is to create an MC who is not always likable. Stephen has described his attributes well. This is especially challenging because he’s a Black boy and they already have so many things projected onto them (I have light-skinned privilege), mainly negative, even criminal. To me, even King’s faults make him completely endearing. Because it’s truth.

    Outside of truth is the Louisiana setting which is (to a Southerner) more magical realism than fact. The book is beautifully written, almost rhapsodic in places. It’s hard to put down. It’s eminently readable if you don’t come in resenting the subject matter and author–and that’s a big If. I’m talking adults–kids are likely to be drawn by the intriguing cover and not carry as ingrained biases. It’s certainly distinct–I can’t think of another book like it, in any sense.

    The Newbery Award and openly or obviously (there’s probably been subversion) queer books are not bed-mates. Even much more mild representation that I thought had a chance, like Richard Peck’s The Best Man, didn’t make the cut. It’s clear from the banned books list of the previous decade that sexual orientation and gender expression (I have a trans daughter) are hugely contentious subjects in books for kids. I’ve discussed with a librarian friend whether the Newbery Committee will pick a novel that through the publicity of its win would immediately become the most objected to book in the country. Not to throw shade on the committee. I know they follow regulations. But I can imagine other professionals are having this discussion.

    And (to me) the book does have some faults. I don’t think Sandy has a great character arc. It’s totally implausible that authorities would take him from his father due to abuse. Let me clarify this: not only because the father is a white police officer but also because the boundaries of disciplining your child are different in the South. I had a student who was taken away from his mother because he had a belt buckle mark on his face. He was reunited with her within a month. The plot twist is not just wishful thinking. Kids from similar environments will know it’s a lie.

    I also feel that as brilliant as Callender is as a writer, they have a bit of trouble structuring a book. It may just be me. As I said, this book reads so well, it pulls you along. That can be a kind of structure. For myself, I can’t point to particular scenes I love or even describe the ending without looking at the book again. There’s also the point that it’s won the Horn Book Award and is a finalist for the National Book Awards, which I feel it has a strong chance of winning. I believe in recognizing not just art but artists. So I hope the love gets spread around to all the great 2020 books and authors.

    PS Sorry I went on so long—quiet hour at work.

  3. Courtney Hague says:

    Thank you, Lynette, for your review! I agree that the audiobook was excellent even if that doesn’t actually have anything to do with this award.

    I definitely think the strength of this novel lies in King as a character and in the themes that you’ve laid out. I think the grief and the presentation of King and Sandy’s sexuality is very well done and is believable.

    However, I also agree with Librarian Bob’s comments about some of the weaker points in this novel. Sandy’s character arc is definitely lacking and the ending does come across as a little bit of wish fulfillment when it comes to Sandy’s character in particular.

    But the writing really does draw you into the story and I definitely found King to be a believable character.

  4. Cherylynn says:

    I thought this book did an excellent job with so many things, but I have a strange question. What are the dragonflies about? I felt like I was missing a point or something that the author was trying to express. The whole dragonfly thread that ran through the book confused me.

  5. I enjoyed this book, particularly the main character. I have to agree regarding the audiobook narrator. He was terrific!

    Like other commentors have said, I did feel that some of the other characters were a bit underdeveloped. I would have loved to see more of the protagonist’s aunt. She only appears at the climax. I did appreciate the development of the mother and father, and the father’s aloofness on the morning rides to school are believable. My father and I had a similar relationship when I was young.

    I had never thought about books with LGBTQ+ characters not receiving Newbery recognition. Perhaps this year will be an exception. There is one book in particular for which I’m rooting that has LGBTQ+ representation. I appreciate that there are many awards that seek to recognize a wide varietey of books. It’s nice to see that King and the Dragonflies has received love from award committees.

    Regarding the dragonflies themselves: I think the main point was that the protagonist believes his brother is watching over him in dragonfly form. He saw a dragonfly at the funeral and connected this with his brother. So, the novel explores his guilt and conflicting feelings toward the relationship he had with his brother. He feels haunted by his brother even as he learns to forgive and stand on his own.

    • Alissa R Tudor says:

      I agree with your assessment about the dragonflies. That was the conclusion I came to as well. Although I felt it was not as developed as it could have been.

  6. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    I saw the dragonflies the same way Meredith did. In his grief and guilt King gets some comfort in believing his brother is still with him. It rings true to me, given King’s character and emotions. It’s an interesting choice to include the word in the title, though. That grants a high level of importance for the dragonflies within the book, which I’m not sure I would have felt if they weren’t named in the title and featured in the first scene. So now I’m wondering if there was more going on with them than I realized. Or was I not weighing their symbolic impact heavily enough?

  7. I agree that Sandy’s character arc was probably the weakest, more wish fulfillment than anything. I think with a lot of children/middle grade books featuring child abuse have to walk a fine line between being too realistic and thus alienating adults viewing it as age appropriateness of such a heavy topic.

    I also agree that books featuring LGBTQIA+ are devalued for that representation, especially in children books awards. But that comes down to the subjective views of those choosing those awards. I have been privy to some on state award boards outright saying that they’d never choose a LGBTQIA+ book even if it was a good story because they believed it wasn’t ‘appropriate’ for children and by that fact alone disqualifies them.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      It’s true that we haven’t seen a book featuring LGBTQIA+ named as a Newbery Medal or Honor book. The Newbery Manual states that committee members must “maintain a high degree of confidentiality regarding the committee’s discussions, both oral and written prior to, during, or following the selection of the award.” So we have no way of knowing what discussion there might have been around LGBTQIA+ content with books like THE BEST MAN, IVY ABERDEEN’S LETTER TO THE WORLD, THE PRINCESS AND THE DRESSMAKER, PET, etc. And even within those discussions, members could simply not vote for a book that they feel is not “appropriate,” regardless of its literary quality, without expressing that feeling in discussion.

      This is where Newbery Criteria can have such an important impact. They direct members to focus on literary elements, with no mention of what might be deemed appropriate for a community, school, or age level. They require that “the book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations”…again, that guides members towards excellence in writing within a broad range of child readers (“up to and including fourteen”).
      Additionally, the Newbery Manual states that “committee members are strongly encouraged to be open to listening and learning as well as sharing as they consider materials representing diverse experiences both familiar and unfamiliar to them.” So members who are less comfortable or familiar with specific content or themes need to be particularly self-aware and open-minded in their reading and evaluation.

      Whether or not all of this goes far enough to guarantee that books with potentially “contentious” subject matter will be recognized as much as they deserve. My hope (and expectation) is that KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES will be evaluated by the real committee based on its considerable literary strengths, including its exploration of themes and issues that reaches the level of “excellence of presentation for a child audience.”

  8. I hear all your mixed commentary and remain confident this book is a wonderful, distinctive example of greatness in writing for young people. It moves a conversation forward without forcing an agenda, and the setting is – to me – a central character, well defined. I might agree that Sandy is less complex, but as a secondary character, that felt an acceptable compromise in a middle-grades novel. King is a unique and complex character, his parents and the grief of their family ring true, as does the complicated nature of King’s relationship with Khalid in life and in death. But the real gift of this book comes down to image and art – the dragonflies, the light imagery (what I focused on in my review at sarabethwest.com), and sentences that are extra-gorgeous.

  9. Alissa R Tudor says:

    I feel as if this book certainly checks the criteria for a Newbery winner. If we are analyzing the book based on the criteria outlined by the committee,
    -marked by eminence and distinction: noted for significant achievement
    -marked by excellence in quality
    -marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence
    -individually distinct
    this book fits the bill. In regards to the discussion of the content and the inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ characters, like many of you, I see the possibility of the committee’s decision to make the argument of whether or not this book is intended for the Newbery’s audience. It will certainly be interesting to see if this one makes the cut.

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