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On Light and Kacen Callender's King and the Dragonflies

Light and Darkness - a universal symbol of opposition. Darkness provides easy representation for evil, for sadness, for lack of clarity or even deception. Light, on the other hand, is symbolic of goodness, purity, joy, and truth. When we talk of bringing things "to light" or "the light at the end of the tunnel," we refer to that point of transition where all the formerly negative things are now seen in a positive light. These images work because they are so often true; however, in King and the Dragonflies, Kacen Callender reminds us that things are not always so simple.

King's brother, Khalid, died three months ago, out of the blue collapsed during soccer practice, and ever since the funeral, King believes his brother is now a dragonfly. Every day after school, King goes to the bayou where the dragonflies swarm on the surface of the still water, and he hopes to catch a glimpse of the one - the one he knows is his brother, but every day, the dragonflies stay anonymous.

King and Khalid shared a bedroom, and Khalid had vivid, interactive, talk-outloud dreams, which King would overhear and copy down in a journal. At the funeral, King is thinking about the way Khalid wouldn't have wanted everyone sitting around mourning his old body because

My brother could slip into a whole other universe in his sleep. We're all made of light.

In fact, light plays on and around and across every surface of this book. It is in the neighbor's yard as King walks past, seeing all the "rusting cars and trucks shimmering under the sun and collecting all the light in the world and bouncing it right into my eyes." It's in the living room, where "dim light swirls in through the windows and the gauzy curtains." And it's in the dream King has, when he feels lost and confused, covered over with grief, covered over with uncertainty about himself and his place in the world, when Khalid appears and takes him into the clouds,

big and soaking the light of the world, colors shining around us like a kaleidoscope, and when I looked up, I saw our town again, hanging upside down far above us, so far it was disappearing, becoming just a dot, and the blue of the sky enveloped us, becoming nothing but light, light, light.

The truth isn't always an easy thing, and light isn't always clarifying. Sometimes light can distort and fragment your vision; sometimes light can color the whole world in a rainbow of glistening uncertainty. King is an average, ordinary kid, struggling to figure out what it means to like someone, what it might mean if he is gay, what to do with all the feelings he carries around with him. But he also not average, not ordinary, and wrestling with feelings most kids do not have to face. The loss of a sibling is something most of us fail to see for the destructive force it is. King helps us to see.

To lose a parent is hard, tragic even, but it is expected, the normal course of things. For a parent to lose a child, as King's parents have done, is for the world to lose its center. This is not how things are supposed to go. And in the heft of their unnatural grief, we often forget to notice what it means to lose a sibling. If you have siblings, you most likely have always seen yourself as someone's brother or sister. Though there may have been years between your birth and the birth of your siblings, your identity is so wrapped up in that role that to lose a sibling is also to lose a part of yourself, to lose your grip on who you are in the world. For King, that loss comes hand-in-hand with his uncertainty about his sexuality and his worry of what his brother would have thought of him if it's true. Tying these two unsettling, destabilizing realities to King is a brilliant way to show how your understanding of yourself can be refracted like light through a kaleidoscope, leaving you breathless.

Callender's writing is lyrical, employing image with a lightness, a grace not unlike the touch of a dragonfly on the surface of water. And King and his family are real and finely drawn, imperfect but trying, just like the rest of us. There are so many truths here, some hard, some we might not want to face, some that hurt. But like the fact of the Louisiana sun, there's no avoiding it. King knows that parents shouldn't hit their children, that no one should be discriminated against because of their skin color or who they love. He knows that Khalid shouldn't have died, that

No one like him should have a heart attack and die from it, but he did.
But I'm here. I'm still alive.
I keep on walking.

The light may confuse and blister, but it is vital, it is undeniable, and it is a force we must reckon with. Sometimes, the best we can do is to keep on walking.


The 2021 Newbery Medal selection committee spends the whole year considering titles. As always, I will be reading and reviewing along with the committee, keeping one eye on today's young readers and the other eye on each book's prospects. After each review, I'll offer my one-sentence take (OST) on medal-worthiness.

OST: With its lyricism and grace, its wrenching truths that manage to remain hopeful, this just might be my new frontrunner.

Previous titles under consideration:


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