2021 Newbery Buzz #1: King and the Dragonflies

Betsy: Readers, we’re kicking off our annual Newbery Buzz discussion series with a book that has already garnered a major award: King and the Dragonflies, by Kacen Callender, received the 2020 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. (Incidentally, another book we enjoyed and rated highly was a finalist: When Stars are Scattered.) Each January, we discuss books that we’re hearing lots of buzz about and try to figure out if the book is a possible Newbery candidate—along with what we might think were we on the selection committee. The Newbery committee is famously close-lipped about the possible contenders, so we really don’t know if we’re on the right track. Some years, we do pretty well. Others…. Well…

Janie, it’s rare for a book to win  both a National Book Award and a Newbery. Part of that may be that many of the NBA books are for a slightly older audience than many of the Newbery books. Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds was an NBA finalist last year, and Reynolds has earned a Newbery Honor before, but I can’t think of a single book that won both awards.

Would you give us a brief summary of the plot?

Janie: The only children’s book I can recall that swept both the NBA and the Newbery was Louis Sachar’s Holes, back in 1999. A dual award is a possibility for King and the Dragonfly–mostly because, in our “woke” age, the story crosses a lot of intersectional lines. We can talk about that later, but here’s the plot:

Since the sudden, inexplicable death of his big brother Khalid on the soccer field, Kingston (King) and his family have been wrapped in a shroud of grief. Mom doesn’t cook, Dad doesn’t talk, and King himself is somehow convinced that his older brother has been reincarnated as a dragonfly. King is dealing with other stuff too, like his betrayal of Charles “Sandy” Sanders, the local sheriff’s son. He failed to keep a secret Sandy told him, and feels terrible about it because he’s somewhat simpatico with Sandy–even though the boy is white and his dad is a blatant bigot. Actually it’s not such a big secret that Sandy is gay. When he goes missing and turns up in King’s secret hideaway, King has some decisions to make. Would he be outing his friend again to reveal his whereabouts, especially since King suspects that he himself is gay?

The novel earned four starred reviews and has showed up on practically every “best of 2020” list known to man or woman. To speak of the good, I found it more nuanced than a lot of books that address racism. King and his family members experience everyday bigotry, but they have their own weaknesses and blind spots too. Otherwise, though, I didn’t think the novel was that outstanding. Besides thematic issues, I also thought it had some structural problems. What was your main problem with the book, Betsy?

Betsy: I, too, appreciated some things about this novel. Its treatment of racism was nicely done. I also appreciated the way it showed how all of us have blind spots towards people based on pre-conceived ideas of what that sort of person should be. The father’s assumptions of what role a woman should play at home, the community’s assumptions of what a sheriff is like, the students’ assumptions of what makes a good friend—there’s a lot food for thought in this novel. But that was also part of my frustration. It reminded me a little bit of The Parker Inheritance: there’s almost too much going on in the novel for the author to do everything well. 

I also didn’t like the first-person present-tense narration in King. It pulls us too much into King’s stream of consciousness at times, and it muddies the waters. His memories of the sleep-talking Khalid, combined with his grief in general and his fixation on the dragonflies—it just didn’t work for me. I thought it detracted from the rest of the story too much (even though his brother’s approval of King’s “identity” was a behind-the-scenes driving force in King’s eventual embrace of his feelings). The brother’s death could have been more in the background; we’d still have felt the family’s grief and the the book would have read smoother. In fact, I kept wishing the brother’s death had been treated a little bit more like it was in The Way Home Looks Now. What were the structural problems you noticed, Janie? 

Janie:  Mostly what you said: the plot was crowded with too many “issues.” As I was reading, I tried to figure out what the central theme was supposed to be: death & grieving? bullying? abuse? racism/white supremacy? LGBT tolerance? I can imagine a young reader being distracted by a plot that seems crowded and yet rather static.

But by the end of the book, it seemed clear to me that the novel was about capital-I Identity. I say this because it’s stated rather than shown. In the very first chapter, King is wondering why Kahlid appears to him as a dragonfly, rather than a lion or wolf: “And if he were still in that body that’s buried in the ground over at the Richardson cemetery, he might hit me upside the head with his crooked grin and say, ‘Leave me alone. I can choose to be whatever I want.'” Later, Kahlid, who is now kind of a mentoring spirit, makes it even more explicit: “You are not your body.”

The author, whose preferred pronouns are they/them, is of undeclared, “nonbinary” gender, so it’s not unfair to presume an agenda. If one is not one’s body, one may then float in and out of identities at will—even Kahlid, toward the end of the novel, no longer takes on the persona of a dragonfly. This is what transgender activism is all about: the individual is sovereign over his/her/their own body; people are who they will themselves to be. (There’s some irony here, in that King and Sandy don’t decide to be gay–that particular identity seems to be baked in.) This is what children are being told, and it’s dangerous because it’s profoundly untrue. Though a talented writer, Callender is lying to children (unintentionally, I assume) and rather than increasing tolerance, is probably just increasing confusion.
Further thoughts, Betsy?

Betsy: I love your point about the irony of King’s and Sandy’s gay identities versus the ones they might “choose.” 

I thought the message that you’ll find happiness in being yourself, no matter what anyone else thinks (including those in authority over you) is a terribly sad and depressing message to leave with young readers. I remember how much I floundered around in middle school. Ugh. (Callender shows the tempestuous nature of middle school relationships, complete with gossip, bullying, and the rest.) It’s true that we need to stand up for our convictions even if our friends feel differently. But the source of happiness is NOT in ourselves, and it’s especially not in following a path that so clearly deviates from Scripture. I recently finished Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and he compares Christianity (in particular, Catholicism) to the walls at the edge of a cliff: inside the walls of doctrine, there is a playground where people may frolic to their hearts’ content. At the edge of a cliff without those walls, people huddle together, afraid of veering too close to the edge. This book is missing walls: the needed boundaries that give us security. The world is a big place chock full of ideas and opportunities, but we’ll be stuck in a frightened huddle without God’s boundaries. We don’t find freedom in breaking down all the walls.

Janie: Well said, Betsy—I’ll just add that what young people often accept as authentic identity may just be borrowed from the spirit of the age. Most of us don’t understand who we are until we’re quite a bit older—and not fully then!

Join us next week as we talk over another well-buzzed novel exhibiting a popular theme: Chirp, by Kate Messner.

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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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  1. Maureen on January 1, 2021 at 7:59 am

    Thank you so much for your clear insights and for reading ahead, so we don’t blunder ahead/.

  2. Jamie on January 4, 2021 at 6:26 am

    Thanks so much for the thoughtful and honest review. I understand the need to inform my children about these issues, but from a Christian perspective and when they are old enough, not from an odd agenda driven book.

    I love what you said about the source of our happiness NOT being in ourselves, so true and so contrary to our culture’s message of live your best life, be true to yourself, do what makes you happy.

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