King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender
Published by Scholastic, 2020
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
This is one of those brilliant novels that completely transcends age range. Though published as a middle grade title – and indeed being accessible for younger readers – there is an intersectionality and nuance to the handling of its themes that will see it resonate just as strongly with adult readers.
We follow Kingston, known as King, a Black adolescent trying to deal with the sudden death of his big brother, Khalid. Shortly before his death, upon finding out that King’s best friend Sandy (son of the racist local Sherriff) is gay, Khalid warned his little brother to stay away from him. But when Sandy shows up in King’s backyard, covered in bruises and asking for help, their friendship will be rekindled, and both will be forced to ask questions about themselves and their future.
I really appreciate how realistically flawed all the characters are in this. Callender does a fantastic job of reflecting ingrained societal prejudices, with particular focus on the problems of toxic masculinity and internalised homophobia within the Black community. Its subtle though effective commentary on police corruption is also powerfully pertinent in our current times.
There were moments when this could very easily have indulged in needless genre tropes, but I was happy to see many of these avoided. It was also incredibly refreshing to read a novel aimed predominantly at young people that avoids the trap of tying everything up neatly in a bow. The ending is filled with enough hope to satisfy, but enough unanswered questions remain to sensitively reflect the ongoing nature of navigating grief and identity.
My only reasons for docking a star were personal quibbles, rather than particular faults of the book itself. There are several instances when a fraught situation ends with King fleeing in tears, and whilst I love the attempt to normalise the expression of male emotion, the repetition grated slightly; and though the prose is perfectly competent in serving the story, it’s not a style that necessarily wowed me.
All that said, I think this is a wonderful novel that I would love to see on lots of people’s radars. King is a hugely endearing protagonist; his story one that matters now more than ever. The book’s ability to tackle big and important themes with due reverence, without condescending its young readership or alienating its adult readers, is truly impressive.
You can pick up a copy of King and the Dragonflies by clicking here.