42 pages 1 hour read

Kacen Callender

King and the Dragonflies

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


King and the Dragonflies (2020) is a teen and young adult fiction novel about a Black youth in a small Louisiana town. It is a story of self-realization and the changes that the death of a child can bring to a family. Kingston James copes with the recent death of his older brother Khalid by using his imagination and his late brother’s musings about the universe to embark on a spiritual journey that includes dragonflies and dreams. At the same time, King tries to come to terms with his gay identity and to save a friend from abuse. The book won the 2020 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. It also won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction and Poetry.

The author, Kacen Callender, has written several books for children, teens, and adults, including the Lambda Literary award-winning Hurricane Child. They were born and raised in St. Thomas, USVI, and currently live in Philadelphia.

Plot Summary

Kingston “King” James is 12 years old, Black, and living in a small town in Louisiana. He is mourning the recent death of his older brother, Khalid. He imagines that Khalid has returned as a dragonfly because one of the insects landed on his brother’s casket during the funeral. He looks for dragonflies when he walks by the bayou near his home, fantasizing that one of them could be his brother.

At school, King is friends with Jasmine, and he wonders what the difference is between liking her as a friend and being her boyfriend. His friend Darrell talks with Camille—the school’s gossiper—about rumors their classmate Sandy Sanders is gay. King tells them he knows Sandy is gay and then regrets telling Sandy’s secret.

King was once close friends with Charles “Sandy” Sanders, who is white, until Sandy told him he was gay. King’s brother Khalid overheard their conversation and told King he should not be friends with Sandy anymore. Khalid told King, “You don’t want anyone to think you’re gay, too, do you?” (27). Sandy comes from a racist family, which further complicates his relationship with King. There are rumors around town that Sandy’s brother Mikey participated in the murder of a Black man, although the authorities never charged him, possibly because his father is the sheriff. Sandy’s grandfather was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

King runs into Sandy while walking alone in the bayou. Sandy tells King that he is sorry about Khalid. He admits that he is angry at King for breaking off their friendship but offers to listen if King needs someone to talk to. Sandy tells King that he is not ashamed of being gay and that there is nothing wrong with liking other boys instead of girls.

That night at dinner, King’s mother gets a phone call. It is from Sheriff Sanders, Sandy’s father, who tells her that Sandy has gone missing. King is afraid to tell anyone that he saw Sandy in the bayou the afternoon before he went missing because he fears the sheriff will suspect him of having something to do with his disappearance.

King’s father hears news about the missing boy on the radio and says how terrible it is. However, King wonders if his father would feel bad about it if he knew Sandy was gay. He recalls his father making anti-gay comments, including that Black people can’t be gay.

King summons the courage to tell his parents that he saw Sandy at the bayou before he went missing. That same evening, King finds Sandy hiding in King’s backyard tent. King sees bruises on Sandy’s face and suspects that Sandy’s father hit him. Sandy admits that he is hiding from his father. He begs King not to tell anyone where he is. King agrees to keep Sandy’s secret and brings him food.

Khalid visits King in a dream and tells him secrets about the universe, including that people are not their bodies. King talks to Sandy about his family’s reputation, and Sandy insists that his brother Mikey is not a racist and did not kill anyone. Sandy admits that his grandfather was racist, but he points out that King is like his grandfather because he ended their friendship when Sandy revealed his sexual orientation.

Sandy tells King he can’t stay in the tent anymore because King’s father came home early and almost caught him. King decides to take Sandy to an old shack in the swamp that Khalid had told him about. Sandy is happy there fishing and picking berries. The two boys rekindle their friendship. Sandy apologizes for his family’s racist acts. King tells Sandy he is not responsible for his family’s wrongdoings. King apologizes for the way he treated Sandy when he found out he was gay.

At school, King agrees to be Jasmine’s boyfriend even though he likes her only as a friend. He thinks that Khalid would be glad if he knew he had a girlfriend. However, then he remembers how he responded in the tent when Sandy told him he was gay. King told Sandy that he might be gay, too.

Sandy is found and returned to his father. King tells his parents that Sandy’s father hits him, but they do not believe him. Upset and worried about Sandy, King starts to cry. King’s father, who had once told King that boys don’t cry, now tells King it is all right to cry.

Worried about Sandy’s wellbeing, King stands across the road from Sandy’s house for hours. He eventually finds the courage to knock on the door. The sheriff answers and threatens to have King arrested and sent to juvenile court for aiding a minor runaway if he does not leave immediately. He knows King helped hide Sandy in the bayou. King starts to say that Sandy told him the sheriff hits him, but he stops when the sheriff steps toward him in a threatening manner.

When he gets home, King’s parents tell him they got a call from the sheriff. His mother asks King if it is true that he is gay. She says the sheriff told her that King gave Sandy the idea to be gay. King tells his mother that the sheriff is lying, but he realizes that his parents believe the sheriff. Feeling sad, King retreats to his backyard tent and hopes Khalid visits him in his dreams.

King’s friends at school have heard about the situation with Sandy. Jasmine asks King if it is true that he is gay. He admits that he told Sandy that he might be gay. King then admits that he likes Jasmine as a friend but not as a girlfriend.

King finds a note from Sandy in his tent. Sandy asks him to meet at the school that night. When the two boys meet, Sandy tells King he is going to run away. He plans to travel to New Orleans and blend in with the Mardi Gras crowd before heading to New York City. He asks King to meet him at the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans so they can run away together. King knows his parents are planning a trip to New Orleans, but he is unsure if he will accompany Sandy in his run-away plan.

In New Orleans, King feels a special connection to his Auntie Idris. She tells him about how her dead father visits her in her dreams. She also says a prayer that speaks directly to Khalid at dinner. King and his father go out to watch the Mardi Gras parades. King has been worried that his father will reject him as a son because he’s gay. However, King’s father tells him that although he is unsure about the gay issue, he loves King.

King meets Sandy at the cathedral. He tells him he can’t run away with Sandy and urges Sandy not to go either. When King returns to his family, he decides he must tell them about Sandy’s situation. This time, his parents believe that Sandy’s father is abusive, and they promise to do whatever they can to prevent Sandy from going back to his father.

Sandy is found, but he is not returned to his father. Sheriff Sanders is arrested for abusing both of his sons, and his badge is taken away. Sandy goes to live with his brother Mikey, who is old enough to get his own place.

At school, King apologizes to Jasmine. He explains that he lied to her because he was afraid of losing her as a friend. She accepts his apology. King tells Jasmine, Breanna, and Tony that he is gay, but he decides not to tell Darrell and Camille because he believes everyone doesn’t need to know.

Walking in the bayou, King realizes Khalid was never a dragonfly, but he knows his brother will be with him forever.

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