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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES by Kacen Callender

Introduced by Heavy Medal Award Committee member Charlotte Chung

KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES by Kacen Callender is a tender, affecting, and hopeful story of grief, belonging, and transformation. The story follows protagonist King James, a Black youth who is coping with the unanticipated loss of his older brother Khalid. Callender masterfully weaves together King’s processing of grief, growth, and transformation.  

Callender’s nuanced representation of grief is one that children and adults will both relate to and perhaps find solace in. For example, Callender beautifully captures the surreal feelings that follow an unexpected loss of a young person–where the world seems forever changed by this unnaturally early death, yet paradoxically also appears to move on in the same way as before the loss. From their opening line of

The dragonflies live down by the bayou, but there’s no way to know which one’s my brother (1)

Callender immerses the reader into a present that is both familiar and unfamiliar. The surreal feelings of King’s grief are also reflected in King’s vivid descriptions of the lush Louisiana landscape and recollections of Khalid’s fantastical dreamy musings. Finally, as grief and loss are felt at both the individual and communal levels, Callender also takes care to depict the many ways in which Khalid’s passing is processed by King, his mother, father, and aunt individually and collectively.  

Callender’s attentive and compassionate rendering of King and his family’s mourning also follows how King, his family, and his community navigate and confront the intersections of toxic masculinity, racism, and homophobia. King’s mourning over Khalid coalesces with King coming to terms with being gay. Reflecting on homophobic statements made by his friends and family, King is reluctant to accept and share his sexuality. King eventually shares his sexuality with his family, and his relationship with them does change, but in an unexpected way. More specifically, King and his family realize that they have been impacted by Khalid’s death and learning of King’s sexuality, but their love for one another does not waver. They respond to the changes and uncertainty, knowing that their love for one another is constant. Overall, in KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES the many rich themes and metaphors as well as the representation of toxic masculinity, racism, and homophobia, are well-balanced and well-articulated to a middle school audience. The book would therefore lend well to a meaningful middle school class read and discussion. 

KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES is not only distinguished for being one much-needed novel to address a gap in the middle school book publishing world by sharing stories of Black LGBTQ+ children. It is also an eminent novel for its nuanced depictions of a child’s and family’s grief and growth, Black familial relations, and diverse LGBTQ+ coming-of-age experiences (with the juxtapositions of King and Sandy’s experiences). This book should be a staple in any personal, public, and school library collection and should be a serious contender for major awards and accolades.

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


  1. This has been my favorite, the frontrunner against which all other titles have been measured all year. I think Callender strikes every right note here and agree with Charlotte that it is vital. Its marks of distinction (setting, character, presentation, appropriateness) definitely put it in the category of distinguished, but how to decide? If you’d asked me three weeks ago, this was still my winner, hands down. Now with a few more titles pushing forward, they are more in dialogue with each other, and I am in agonies!

    Every year, there is a different cast of characters, I know. Some years, it feels like the answer is easy – a stand out title that just feels obvious. Some years, it feels (at least to me) like the pool is solid but none are really remarkable. This year, it feels like there are several that are truly distinguished, and I know there are still wonderful titles out there that we aren’t discussing here and that I haven’t read yet! How does the committee ever do it??

  2. Susan Northsea says:

    Sara Beth–you say that very well! It’s an especially strong year for distinguished MG. I have an idea of which titles I’d to see as Honor books and I hope the committee picks four! I put together groups in my mind. But I don’t see a clear front runner either. Heavy Medal did an excellent job of curating a list. I’m sure there are winners on it. But there may also be something that was in the reader polls but didn’t make it to the final fifteen.

    All that said, I first read KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES in late 2019 and I immediately saw that it was an extraordinary book in so many ways, and that it might be the LGBTQ book to “break through” to win general awards. (No disrespect to targeted awards.) That has proved to be true. Charlotte, you have done an excellent job of describing all I love. But reading it 3-4 (?) times over a year, I see it a bit differently, especially compared to other titles. Often marginalized people are compelled to make their marginalization the full story. I feel that’s happening here. I wish there were more threads or even a substantial subplot apart from queerness. Even the death of a sibling is tied to King being gay. I’m also not convinced that the Louisiana setting isn’t stereotypical (a bayou and alligators) or that the characters voices and attitudes naturally fit there. I like that the Newberys seem to take regionalism into account. Is this truly a Southern book? I do love that I’s true magical realism, which Garcia Marquez described as just the way he sees realism.

    More than that–and this is so nebulous and not easy to articulate–it doesn’t feel like a Newbery Medal book to me. Even though the last five to ten Medal winners are disparate, they share something–maybe the shape of the story and age range appeal. I know that’s vague. And except for the de la Pena book. I cannot reconcile that winning over Ryan’s ECHO. But maybe that falls into the discussions of maturity of subject and complexity of style. I preferred THE INQUISITOR’S TALE (also mature and complex) but I was thrilled for Barnhill.

    All this sad–I’m rambling–Callender is a superb writer. I’ve begun to anxiously await their next project. They have a purpose in the best sense –writing for young people who need to see these stories which maybe haven’t existed before.

    • Charlotte Chung says:

      Sara Beth and Susan, I agree! There are so many distinguished titles on the Heavy Medal list. I’m really looking forward to the zoom discussion to discuss in more detail the specific merits of the books.

      Susan, I want to address your point about how “Often marginalized people are compelled to make their marginalization the full story” and that you felt that this was happening here. I want to carefully address this, because I don’t feel that it is my place to unpack this idea as a white cisgender woman. I don’t know what it is like to be a Black queer child, and fully understand how the intersections of their identities may inform how they move through and experience the world.. I know Callender themself has addressed the need to diversify our bookshelves in this post: Here, Callender reflects “Wouldn’t it be nice, perhaps, to read a book that reflects our current struggles along with our triumphs, our joys?” Reading “King and the Dragonflies” I could see King’s struggles for sure, but also his (and his family’s) triumphs and joys as well.

    • Emily Mroczek (Bayci) says:

      I wanted to address Susan’s thoughts on subplots. I agree that yes, everything is tied into being homosexual, but I don’t think that discounts the subplots of grief over a dead sibling, friendship, and child abuse/ bullying. I think if anything it makes the writing better because Callender seamlessly shows how life is messy and everything is intertwined, nothing can stand alone.

      • Susan Northsea says:

        Due to my busy school schedule, I’ve been gone a while. So I’ve just had a chance to read Charlotte Chung’s (appreciate the link) and Emily Mroczek (Bayci)’s responses and thoughts. Thank you!

  3. Aud Hogan says:

    Charlotte, thanks for your introduction. I think your summary of the key themes of the book is really on point. One of the things that I’m really impressed about with this book is how the author managed to fit all of those themes, images, relationships, and more into a a relatively small number of pages, without the story feeling rushed or overwhelmed. That takes a lot of skill.

    The conversations King and Sandy had about their relative experiences (being Black, being gay, family structure, being poor, etc.) down in the bayou are ones that I could see kids of this age really having and getting into. I could see this book starting those kinds of conversations and helping readers grow their empathy.

    I also appreciate the school scenes. Especially when the kids stand up for each other, like when Jasmine calls Camilla out for telling the secret of Breanna’s crush, and when Anthony tries to give King room to explain his reasons for hiding/helping Sandy. Group dynamics are really hard at this age, and I think the author nailed it.

    • Kirsten Hansen says:

      Thank you, Aud Hogan, for putting into words what I was pondering: this book has so much in it without feeling uncomfortably crammed, and may get the attention of readers who don’t want to read a longer book. Shorter, but impactful.

      I appreciated King’s parents’ initial imperfect response to his coming out: it highlights that a complicated (by grief, in this case) family can be loving, and that a loving family can be complicated. I think that will resonate with a lot of readers, whether or not they are LGBTQ.

    • Charlotte Chung says:

      Aud–I’m so glad that you touched upon the school scenes and the conversations between Sandy and King. Like you said, I really appreciated how Callender manages to fit in so many nuanced themes, images, and relationships into one book in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming. I really struggled with writing the introduction because there were so many elements of the book that Callender does well and that make it (in my view) a distinguished title worthy of the Newberry and other honors.

  4. Meredith Burton says:

    This book is one which I struggle to express my feelings about. I loved the writing style, particularly the vivid descriptions of the bayou and King’s complex voice. On my first reading of the book, I was frustrated by King’s father and his constant assertions about men: Men don’t cry, men don’t like pretty things, ETC. It was super hard for me to like him. Then I read the book again and was able to focus on the layers of his character. I love how King’s mother doesn’t cook after Coleed’s death and how King’s dad finally gets the message! That made me smile.
    I love how this book explores identity and how that journey is never easy. I also appreciated the author’s honesty about grief and how it’s all right to be angry with those who have moved on.

    I hate to criticize any book, but I felt that Sandy’s plot point was resolved very well. I do like that the author does not tie everything up neatly, but I wonder about Sandy and Mikey’s future. Also, I felt that getting Sandy away from his father was a bit too easily done at the end. Maybe Mikey should have gone to Batten Rouge or something. I’m having trouble expressing my feelings. I also had trouble fully comprehending how the dragonflies fit into the whole plot. King admits toward the end that Collid was not a dragonfly, so did they just provide him with the comfort he needed? Or did they remind him of his guilt for feeling anger toward his brother? I was a bit confused.

    All in all, I think this is an important book and an excellently written one. I would not personally choose it for a Newbery, but perhaps an honor.

  5. Rox Anne Close says:

    In all honesty, this book was not at the top of my list for a Newbery award on my first read, but after reading it a second time, as Beth stated, this books marks of distinction, (setting, character, presentation, and appropriateness), definitely put it in the category of distinguished. I loved Callender’s beautiful descriptive, writing, especially how she captured the surreal feelings of grief that follows an unexpected death. “Then I remembered, and an invisible hand reaches right into my chest and clutches my heart so hard, it stops.”

    Callender does a great job of character development. The complex character, King, is not only dealing with grief, identity, discovering his place in the world, but also dealing with honesty, loyalty, courage, fear, and changing relationships. He is navigating all of this in an environment of toxic masculinity, racism and homophobia. In Callender’s words, ” There’s a mess in my head – a mess of threads belonging to Jasmine and my brother and Sandy and that tent in the backyard and all the dragonflies”. I’m amazed how Callender ties all these threads together.

    I think more books are needed for the middle school reader who views themselves as marginalized in several categories. Although this book probably would not be my top choice for the Newbery Award, it is definitely award quality, and it would be fine with me if it won. There are just so many distinguished books this year.

    As a side note, Meredith, to reflect on your dragonfly question, I have a pond in my backyard, with beautiful orange and blue/green winged dragonflies. They flitter about gently and their transparent wings catch the reflection of the pond and glisten in the sunlight. As I watch them, they fill me with hope, beauty and calmness. Maybe this is the image of what King needed in his life. I don’t know Callender’s intent, just my thoughts!

  6. Amanda Bishop says:

    This is such a rich and complex book. Callender is one of my favorite authors and their writing never fails to impress. I felt like I was transported into another world while reading this book. The imagery of the bayou and the setting was so beautiful.

    There were so many books that dealt with loss and grief this year. It still amazes me how authors have the ability to write about loss in such disparate ways. It really speaks to the sincerity they have when writing for children and understanding the complex range of emotions that children experience everyday.

    I love how Callender writes about King and his inner dialogue about the things in his life. How he’s living through the loss of his brother and attempting to hold onto the memories they shared. I think this paragraph sums up his grief beautifully:

    “I cry until I fall asleep, and even then, I’m crying in my dreams. I stand on the side of the street, staring across, waiting for Khalid to come- but he doesn’t come to me, not tonight. Not even a flicker of dragonfly wings” (182)

  7. Meredith Burton says:

    Thank you, Ms. Roxanne, for this beautiful description. That makes sense. I like that we don’t always have to understand every symbol but that the imagery can leave such a strong impression. Callender definitely achieves this goal with this book. The setting is rich and evocative.
    Thanks so much.

  8. Tamara DePasquale says:

    I’m often asked why I read a book more than once if it didn’t “wow” me upon my first read. Like many of you, I have a large pile to read each week and I sometimes read quickly while juggling other titles and several interruptions. These days I’m also taking into account my shifting moods and reading needs during the pandemic. So, honestly, at first this title did not resonate with me as much as others. Then, when the opportunity to read it again for Heavy Medal arose, I was truly drawn in and willing to move this way up on my list of contenders.

    Callender has gifted the reader a true glimpse into what it’s like to navigate adolescent relationships with siblings, parents, friends, adults, and self all while dealing with the heaviness and complexity that comes with grief, guilt, shame, homophobia, abuse, racism, and poverty. There is so much going on here! Yet, I never once felt that Callender was overreaching.

    King’s voice is truly authentic and his vulnerability is palpable. His constant questioning and its accompanying angst are what in the end helps him grow and embrace who he is and where he stands among those he cares about. I love how the book comes full circle when in the very first chapter King says, “And if he were still in the body that’s now buried in the ground over in the Richardson cemetery, he might hit me upside the head with his crooked grin and say ‘Let me alone. I can choose to be whatever I want.'” In the end, King no longer needs the dragonfly to prove that Khalid is not gone. Khalid will always be “with” King, and this, too, eventually frees King and allows him to choose to be true to himself.

    The setting is so vivid. From the heat and humidity to King’s home and the tent, everything about the bayou alerts the senses. You can feel the heat and dampness, smell the mud and foods, hear the buzzing of mosquitos and fans, and easily visualize the swampland and interior of Old Man Martin’s shack. At one point I actually felt relief from the breeze coming through “gauzy” curtains!

    I also appreciated Callender’s ability to sustain the tension throughout the book. I was on edge from the moment Mikey offered King a ride to King’s return to school following Mardi Gras. Was Mikey going to hurt King? Would King’s parents accept him for who he was? Would Sandy and King be discovered at the shack? What would happen to King’s parents if they accused the white sheriff of abusing his children? It was exhausting because I was so invested in and rooting for these memorable characters.

    And let’s talk about hope, as well. I was so happy that not everything was tidied up in the end. The reader does not know what is ahead for King or for Sandy, but there is enough there that allows the reader to believe that things are going to be better.

    No doubt “King and the Dragonflies” is on my contender list for a Newbery Honor. In my opinion it is distinguished, and Callender is well-deserving of this recognition based on such strong development of character and setting and the strength of their writing.