Five questions for Kacen Callender

In King and the Dragonflies (Scholastic, 10–14 years), our grieving twelve-year-old protagonist is convinced that his recently deceased older brother has transformed into a dragonfly. He is also, reluctantly, keeping secrets for his sort-of friend, Sandy, who is gay and has run away from an abusive home. Via dreamlike imagery, uniquely insightful characterization, and extraordinary compassion, Kacen Callender takes readers on King's journeys through despair and toward self-discovery.

1. This book's physical setting is very different from that of Hurricane Child (Scholastic, 10–14 years) — and both are almost like characters. How did place help drive each of these tales?

KC: Settings are especially important for me when writing magical realism like Hurricane Child [set in the Caribbean], or a book with magical elements like in King and the Dragonflies [set in Louisiana]. Louisiana reminded me of St. Thomas and the U.S. Virgin Islands in some ways — both have a history of storms and hurricanes, and both have cultures tied to festivals that feel magical. Because I felt a connection with Louisiana, I created an imaginary town as the setting for King and the Dragonflies and relied on the feeling of magic to drive and color King's story as he wonders if his brother has transformed into a dragonfly.

2. Your sentences are so beautifully crafted — painterly and imagistic yet restrained. Do you read your drafts out loud?

KC: Thank you! I read drafts silently, which I think can help my writing and imagery feel even more dreamlike. This is especially important for a book like King and the Dragonflies, which has elements of dreams. Crafting my writing so that the words sound better out loud grounds the book even more in reality, but writing sentences that flow better in the mind only helps create more atmospheric and magical writing.

3. Which thread of this story came first — King as a brother or as a friend? Or were they always entwined?

KC: King as a brother came first. I almost immediately knew that the story would center on his grief for the passing of his brother Khalid. King’s friend Sandy was at first meant to be in the background, but he eventually became more fully formed. He ended up with just as much importance to the story as Khalid, as he becomes part of King's journey through grief and accepting his identity.

4. All of the characters are so multidimensional, with no one portrayed as simply being one way or another. Is it challenging to be so generous with characters whose viewpoints you may not share?

KC: When I was around twelve years old, I remember realizing that people who I thought were evil (people who were racist and homophobic, for example) probably didn't see themselves as evil. They probably saw themselves as the good guys, and someone like me as the bad person instead. So it isn't challenging to create these sorts of antagonists, because I write from the perspective that no one character sees themselves as a bad person. And as the writer, I still have the power to say that even though a person is not intrinsically evil, their thoughts and actions can be harmful to another. As long as I keep the power to declare that, for example, homophobia and racism are wrong, then it isn't difficult to create these characters.

5. This story holds up a mirror/challenges your readers in such complex ways. While you're writing, is audience reaction on your mind?

KC: Yes, absolutely. I've had the honor of attending different schools to speak about my books, and I've had rich and powerful discussions with young readers who've shown me that they want to be asked difficult questions and that they want to be challenged, just like I do. I'm excited to see what young readers think of King and the Dragonflies.

From the January 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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