King and the Dragonflies: Kacen Callender's 2020 BGHB Fiction and Poetry Award Speech

Dreams have always fascinated me. When I was a child, I’d beg my mom to buy every “dreamology” and dream interpretation book I could find. I felt that dreams were, at the very least, my subconscious trying to communicate: reveal feelings I might not have realized I had, or help me see myself a little more clearly. If you wanted to get to know me as a child, or who I saw myself as, the easiest way would be through my dreams and the journals I kept by my bed, writing down everything that happened in my dreams as soon as I woke up. I love the memories of adventures, sometimes entire stories, which would unfurl in my head after I closed my eyes. This is a magical concept in itself: memory is usually thought of as a callback to something that has occurred, and dreams are born from imagination; but we can have memories of our imagination, too, of things that haven’t happened in this place we call reality. How powerful are dreams, to be born from nothing and yet to exist so strongly that we can remember something that hasn’t actually occurred?

One of the clearest memories of a dream — almost twenty years later, I can still see it — is climbing a mountain, pointing the way to classmates who followed. I’d seen myself as sharing knowledge and wisdom, trying to show them the right path. Perhaps I was a little self-righteous and condescending, but whenever I remember those days, when I fought with those who used anti-queer slurs and got into fights with entire classes over whether it was a sin to be queer (it’s not)…I also want to give baby Kacen a hug and a pat on the shoulder and tell them they’re on the right path, precociousness and all.

Dreams always make their way into my stories, especially the sort of dream that isn’t only an interpretation of the subconscious mind. So many people dream of loved ones who have passed on; they hear messages as they’re guided forward on their own paths. People have dreams of ancestors they haven’t even known or met. There was a particularly difficult day in my life when I felt more alone than I had in a long, long time. I’d been invited to a conference, and in this new state I’d never been to before, I was being misgendered by everyone around me. My biography had been changed from what I’d submitted, my “they/them” pronouns taken out and “she/her” pronouns used instead. As a guest author who had traveled there alone, I felt I couldn’t say anything (I see now I absolutely could have and should have); I went to bed crying instead. And that night, I had one of the most vivid dreams I’ve ever experienced, of various whales — orca, humpback. As soon as I woke up, I looked up the dream-book meaning of whales: it turned out that they mean you are being watched over; you will be all right.

When thinking about the fact that events in dreams do not exist and yet we have memories of them, I start to think of the act of reading, too — of how these stories have not happened, and yet we can have memories of them, remember characters we love; that we have the power to become another person in our imaginations, traveling to different places and different worlds and different realms, having dreams through the eyes of characters, who are dreams themselves, dreams of the author. And so when we’re holding a book, we’re also holding a dream in our hands. Maybe it’s not so much a coincidence that I love dreams as much as I love writing.

[Read Horn Book reviews of the 2020 BGHB Fiction and Poetry winners.]

Writing King and the Dragonflies was a dreamlike experience, too. Writing feels meditative to me, spiritual. The best moments are when I hit that flow — when the hands are moving and words are coming and it feels like I — my brain and body and self — have little to nothing to do with the experience. I love when I read back entire scenes and don’t even remember having written them. I feel more like a conduit in those moments, and it’s easier to strip away the ego of the author and focus on the messages that come through on the page. It’s interesting to me that dragonflies appeared in this particular story. Even King asks Khalid in his sleep, “Why’d you choose a dragonfly?” After I finished writing the book, I suddenly wondered the same: why did I choose a dragonfly to be the creature King thinks Khalid became? I looked up what dragonflies symbolize: change, transformation, adaptability, self-realization — a deeper understanding of life.

King will always grieve the loss of Khalid, but while his brother may or may not have actually transformed into a dragonfly, King himself transforms: learning lessons of love in order to heal and grow. Healing and growth: the theme of this year 2020, am I right? We see what happens when people, a society, do not heal and grow as we need to, when accountability for past horrors is not properly taken and reparations are not made, when these past, unhealed pains meet capitalism, which we allow to control not only our communities but our own selves, our fears. If we all heal and grow as a society — transform, have a deeper understanding of life — would we find ourselves in a world that sees less hurt as we have seen in these past months, years, decades, centuries?

There isn’t very much I can do to change the world, except write — to share lessons I learn as I heal and grow, hoping my stories can have a positive impact on the world. I’ve recently been focusing on my own self-healing and growth. Looking at past hurts, their roots and shadows, I think about how I might be able to learn from the stories I tell and help guide others through their own shadows with my writing. I think about how one day, even I might reach out to someone as an ancestor through their dreams. This is what so many before me have done as well, leaving dreams manifested on pages to help the world to heal, grow, transform.

From the January/February 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2020 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB20. Read more from The Horn Book by and about Kacen Callender.

Kacen Callender

Kacen Callender’s recent titles include Felix Ever After (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins) and King and the Dragonfies (Scholastic), which was the 2020 Boston Globe–Horn Book Fiction and Poetry Award winner and the 2020 National Book Award winner for young people's literature.

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