An eleven-year-old boy copes with the challenges of his city life by weaving his reality into a magical realm of dragons, foxes, and trolls—until he must use the power of his creativity to save both of his worlds from destructive forces. This stunning debut is a profound exploration of imagination, community, and how the stories we tell both comfort us and challenge us to grow.

Charles’ life is split between two worlds: one real and one fantasy. In the real world, he is a lonely, bullied kid who can’t keep up with school when the letters refuse to stay still on the page, and is constantly in trouble for getting distracted. He lives with his mom in an apartment building, where Glory, the grumpy old superintendent, fills his head with stories about the Dream Folk.

In his fantasy world, the Sanctuary, Charles adventures with faeries and sprites and his two imaginary best friends. There, Charles's bullies become ogres, and Glory opens his arms wide to transform into a dragon. But when trolls move into Charles’ apartment building and bring with them a terrible secret, the stories he has been told and the ones he brings to life grow more complicated. To protect everyone he cares about, Charles must harness his imagination in ways he never dreamed, in this unique story of the spaces and narratives we create for ourselves, and the ways in which fantasy and reality collide and blur.
Cameron Roberson, who writes under the pen name Rob Cameron, is a teacher, linguist, and writer. He has poetry, stories, and essays, in Star*Line, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Foreign Policy Magazine, Tor.com, New Modality, Solarpunk Magazine, Clockwork Phoenix Five, and others. Daydreamer is his debut middle grade novel. Rob is also lead organizer for the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers and executive producer of Kaleidocast.nyc. View titles by Rob Cameron
1

I know what’s real and what’s made up. What’s real is me sitting in the main office waiting for the principal in this uneven chair that’s got Legos stuffed under the cushion and teeter-­totters if I breathe too fast. Almost messed up the drawing I’m doing on the back of my social studies test. What’s real is I’m in bad trouble.

About fifteen minutes ago, I was in class taking a test. My teacher, Mr. Sergeant, knows I’m bad at tests, but he makes me take them anyway. Kimaya sometimes lets me copy off hers, except Mr. Sergeant made us sit in alphabetical order today because he said that’s how they do it in the real world.

I was alone with the words, but I wasn’t crying. That’s not why my eyes were wet. It was because I had to read about Black history on glaring, angry white pages, boiling the words alive.

President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.

Free.

Like the words wanted to be. They wanted to move. Pop. ­VIBRATE like people tell me I do when they catch me imagining too hard. Ping-­panging like bees slamming into a window until it breaks, or they do. The dragon didn’t teach me to be cruel, so I let the words go. I almost didn’t have time to be sad before they exploded off the page and took my breath away.

I imagined the words turning into a swarm of sprites who the dragon says are too tiny to see until they light up like sparks from the bad outlet in my bedroom. The sprites made neon-­blue figure eights. The air shaded to soupy fog poured over slippery jungle vines. I made believe they’d been growing for a thousand years. I couldn’t see the classroom anymore. I could almost believe I was alone. No teacher. No students.

Then smooth and quiet as a Venus flytrap, a thistly little mon­ster’s arm reached out from the vines. It closed its fist around a sprite and pulled it into the trees. The sprite squealed then was gone. That was an abatwa snapping up its lunch! They have bent needles for teeth and one red eye that flashes like a smoke detector in the dark. They infest you by sticking their heads under your skin to eat you alive from the inside out.

I wasn’t expecting that. And I wasn’t expecting Princess Ruby to come flying out of nowhere, landing in front of me with a great big splash, bare feet covered in mud, red dress all tattered at the edges, red barrettes and blackbird feathers stuck up in her hair that’s wild as she is.

She grabbed me by the cheeks with her dirty hands and shouted in my face. Or maybe she was speaking in her normal voice, but her question was so terrible and big, it became the loudest thing I’d ever heard, the A train running through my head, banging my bones together.

“CHARLES, WHAT HAPPENS WHEN DRAGONS DIE?”

I jumped to my feet. “Quit it, Ruby! You play too much!”

But Ruby wasn’t there anymore. I wasn’t in a jungle. I was standing in my classroom and my desk was flipped over and my social studies test was covered in messy drawings. Everybody was looking at me and going “Ooooh!” Mr. Sergeant stomped over, shouted in my face, and sent me to the office. To this chair. So now I’m waiting to see Principal Wideman. Bad trouble.

I’m not mad at Ruby for three reasons. First, she’s my best friend. You forgive best friends. Maybe she says things to make me mad, but she’s loyal, fun, and good in a fight.

Second, it wasn’t her fault. I know why I jumped like that. All day, I’ve had this awful feeling, like I swallowed something small and metal in my sleep. I don’t want to get it out because it’ll hurt worse coming up. I know the answer to Ruby’s question, but I don’t want to talk about it.

Third, Ruby’s only in my head. I drew her to look like a friend I used to have until she moved in second grade. How am I going to stay mad at somebody I made up? She’s not real, not like Glory Miles.

My dragon.

There’s good trouble and bad trouble. Anything that gets me bad marks or sent to the principal’s office is bad trouble, and Momma says I’ve already had too much of that. Been had too much since fourth grade. Good trouble is a quest. I want one, but the dragon won’t send me on any or let me go with him on his.

“Young man!”

I look up at Ms. Jo, the school secretary, frowning at me over her typewriter. Ms. Jo calls me “young man” like she doesn’t know my name is Charles. I nearly drop my test paper as bus matrons, noisy parents, kids waiting to be picked up, and teachers clocking out squeeze into the narrow space between the office doors and the long counter. I look at the clock. It’s dismissal time.

“Don’t you hear me calling you?” Ms. Jo shakes her head. “You don’t know how to listen!” Ms. Jo goes back to pecking keys on her big gray typewriter. “That’s your problem.”

“Sorry, Ms. Jo.”

“Mm-­hmm. Ms. Wideman ain’t got time for your foolishness today. She said to expect a call home.”

That stops me. “From my teacher?” I hope so. Mr. Sergeant always says he’s going to call but never does.

“No,” says Ms. Jo without looking up, “Dr. Perez.”

My hands clench and crumple the social studies test. I look past the secretary’s desk to Dr. Perez’s office right next to Principal Wideman’s. It’s smaller. Danker. The blinds are closed on the door.

Dr. Perez is the last person I want calling my house. She might look like a white lady with a Puerto Rican name, but I don’t think she’s human. Yeah, she smiles and says hello, and she’s polite and quiet and so normal-­looking you could almost forget she was there until it was too late. She could be any kind of skin-­walking dream folk, a whole pack of hungry abatwa even, packed into a human skin, like termites.

The brass knob on her door twists. It takes forever, shrieking like a teakettle. The door cracks open with a hiss. Fingers with long, sharp red nails curl like a spider around the edge. I jump out of my chair and run into the hall and out the school. A twist of smoke curls up from the back of the crowd, and I see him. Glory Miles, my dragon.

I’ve always been short for my age, and looking up at him, Glory’s head is even with the lowest cloud in the sky. When I was little, I wasn’t able to see his face because of all the smoke puffing out his nose and mouth like a volcano. He’s got a cigarillo from Mr. Ortega’s bodega stuck in the side of his mouth so people don’t ask any questions about the smoke. Glory never stinks of cigarettes. Sometimes he smells like the incense my evil baby­sitter, Mrs. Hwang, burns for her altar, or like Momma’s cedar coat hangers.

Now, to anybody who doesn’t know anything about dragons, which is pretty much everybody but me, Glory’s an angry old man. He’s the one that’s got the mahogany-­bark skin and is tall like a redwood. You might see that he’s green forever on the inside but hard as the oak that doesn’t bend. How do I know so much about trees? My dragon taught me.

Don’t go looking for scales, wings, and sharp teeth. Dragons can change their shape to be like a man on the outside. They’re not stupid. How else is a dragon going to fit into a one-­bedroom apartment?

He looks down at me with hot green eyes. The dragon’s mad. Glory whaps me upside the back of my head. Doesn’t really hurt anymore.

“You up and lost my good shears yesterday!” he says. “Didn’t I tell you to put them back in the shed, exactly where you found them?”

“Yes, sir. Sorry.” Dragons demand their respect.

He sighs and squeezes me around the shoulder and chuckles. “Get to steppin’, boy. We got real work to do.”

2

I’m standing at the edge of the roof of my building, the Beatrix, on McFarland Street. Down on the sidewalk, kids break-­dance on cardboard as big, wide cars go by, bumping to music and bouncing over potholes. The noises mix together into the song of the City. My City. I like it here.

Behind me, the rooftop is covered with potted baby evergreens for the dragon’s December side hustle. It smells sweet like pine and fabric softener. It’s because of the air from the vents coming up from the basement. Somebody’s always doing laundry. When I’m not at school or home, I practically live up here.

At the Beatrix, we got six stories, a nasty elevator that tries to eat you, and my dragon. Above me, the sky is baby blue fabric scraped with a few chalk lines, so I can see pretty far out. Four-­ and-­ five-­story walk-­ups, some rusted water towers. Six blocks out, the A train rushes across the City, high on its track on the way east to the faraway emerald towers of downtown. When I focus on the words tagging its silver skin, they leave a color trail.

The Beatrix is in the middle of a pretty nice neighborhood. It’s about ten long blocks away from the projects and the North Bridge that crosses over to the Camlot. We don’t talk about the Camlot.

The dragon’s favorite shears, Ent Slayer, are stuck blades down in a sack of mulch leaning up against a cinder block. I pull them out.

“Told him, right where I said.” I can’t help smiling.

“I DON’T CARE!” shouts Ruby. She’s crouching like a big wet cat on the edge of the roof, staring me down. “Answer my question!” she says between clenched teeth. We’d be fighting if I hadn’t been ignoring her since school. I don’t want to talk to her right now, but you don’t ignore friends. Fine.

“How do dragons—­”

“They turn into dust.” I can’t get my mouth to make the words when they die. “But before they do, they get one wish.” Saying it out loud doesn’t make the pain go away completely, but it doesn’t sting near as much as I thought it would. She’s feeling whatever I’m feeling except, instead of running away, Ruby always runs toward danger.

Ruby cocks her head. “Okay, so how do they do that, make a wish?” she asks while walking along the edge of the building on her tiptoes, arms out. Not like she can really fall. Unlike me, she can fly. Ruby kicks and squawks at the pigeons. They don’t move.

A great inhaled breath bends the older trees toward the open door of the dragon’s toolshed and knocks down the younger ones. “Charles! What’s going on over there?” the dragon shouts. His voice shakes the building like the airplane passing overhead is about to land on us. Loose leaves swirl past and sting my eyes until I blink them away. The dragon’s not patient. Ruby’s already gone, saving me from answering her. One thing to say it out loud, another thing to spend time thinking about it and explaining it.
"An achingly well written story about the blurry line between reality and magic in childhood—and the heartbreaking ways it can be shattered."
—Shannon Chakraborty, New York Times best-selling author.

“Cameron's sentences are laden with magic, stuffed to spilling with the stuff of dreams. Through them, he takes us on a journey that's personal, poignant, phantasmagoric, and profound.”
—Carlos Hernandez, Pura Belpré Award winning author of Sal and Gabi Break the Universe

“Charming truths melt into harsh lessons about danger, bravery, persistence, and Charles' growing strength in this fast-paced coming-of-power delight.”
—Nisi Shawl, multiple award-winning author of Speculation, Everfair, and Kinning

"
There’s magic on every page of [this] mesmerizing, unpredictable story....Daydreamer is a tale that will capture the imagination of adults and children alike.’ 
-Milton J. Davis, author of Amber and the Hidden City

"A daring, monumentally lyrical achievement, if not an outright fantasy classic."
-Zig Zag Claybourne, author of Afro Puffs Are the Antennae of the Universe

"This creative debut features strong character development in its exploration of the ways Charles copes with multiple challenges that will resonate with many readers. Captivating and cathartic.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Employing compassionate prose, Cameron illustrates the transformative power of storytelling to deliver a kindhearted tale.”
Publishers Weekly

About

An eleven-year-old boy copes with the challenges of his city life by weaving his reality into a magical realm of dragons, foxes, and trolls—until he must use the power of his creativity to save both of his worlds from destructive forces. This stunning debut is a profound exploration of imagination, community, and how the stories we tell both comfort us and challenge us to grow.

Charles’ life is split between two worlds: one real and one fantasy. In the real world, he is a lonely, bullied kid who can’t keep up with school when the letters refuse to stay still on the page, and is constantly in trouble for getting distracted. He lives with his mom in an apartment building, where Glory, the grumpy old superintendent, fills his head with stories about the Dream Folk.

In his fantasy world, the Sanctuary, Charles adventures with faeries and sprites and his two imaginary best friends. There, Charles's bullies become ogres, and Glory opens his arms wide to transform into a dragon. But when trolls move into Charles’ apartment building and bring with them a terrible secret, the stories he has been told and the ones he brings to life grow more complicated. To protect everyone he cares about, Charles must harness his imagination in ways he never dreamed, in this unique story of the spaces and narratives we create for ourselves, and the ways in which fantasy and reality collide and blur.

Author

Cameron Roberson, who writes under the pen name Rob Cameron, is a teacher, linguist, and writer. He has poetry, stories, and essays, in Star*Line, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Foreign Policy Magazine, Tor.com, New Modality, Solarpunk Magazine, Clockwork Phoenix Five, and others. Daydreamer is his debut middle grade novel. Rob is also lead organizer for the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers and executive producer of Kaleidocast.nyc. View titles by Rob Cameron

Excerpt

1

I know what’s real and what’s made up. What’s real is me sitting in the main office waiting for the principal in this uneven chair that’s got Legos stuffed under the cushion and teeter-­totters if I breathe too fast. Almost messed up the drawing I’m doing on the back of my social studies test. What’s real is I’m in bad trouble.

About fifteen minutes ago, I was in class taking a test. My teacher, Mr. Sergeant, knows I’m bad at tests, but he makes me take them anyway. Kimaya sometimes lets me copy off hers, except Mr. Sergeant made us sit in alphabetical order today because he said that’s how they do it in the real world.

I was alone with the words, but I wasn’t crying. That’s not why my eyes were wet. It was because I had to read about Black history on glaring, angry white pages, boiling the words alive.

President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.

Free.

Like the words wanted to be. They wanted to move. Pop. ­VIBRATE like people tell me I do when they catch me imagining too hard. Ping-­panging like bees slamming into a window until it breaks, or they do. The dragon didn’t teach me to be cruel, so I let the words go. I almost didn’t have time to be sad before they exploded off the page and took my breath away.

I imagined the words turning into a swarm of sprites who the dragon says are too tiny to see until they light up like sparks from the bad outlet in my bedroom. The sprites made neon-­blue figure eights. The air shaded to soupy fog poured over slippery jungle vines. I made believe they’d been growing for a thousand years. I couldn’t see the classroom anymore. I could almost believe I was alone. No teacher. No students.

Then smooth and quiet as a Venus flytrap, a thistly little mon­ster’s arm reached out from the vines. It closed its fist around a sprite and pulled it into the trees. The sprite squealed then was gone. That was an abatwa snapping up its lunch! They have bent needles for teeth and one red eye that flashes like a smoke detector in the dark. They infest you by sticking their heads under your skin to eat you alive from the inside out.

I wasn’t expecting that. And I wasn’t expecting Princess Ruby to come flying out of nowhere, landing in front of me with a great big splash, bare feet covered in mud, red dress all tattered at the edges, red barrettes and blackbird feathers stuck up in her hair that’s wild as she is.

She grabbed me by the cheeks with her dirty hands and shouted in my face. Or maybe she was speaking in her normal voice, but her question was so terrible and big, it became the loudest thing I’d ever heard, the A train running through my head, banging my bones together.

“CHARLES, WHAT HAPPENS WHEN DRAGONS DIE?”

I jumped to my feet. “Quit it, Ruby! You play too much!”

But Ruby wasn’t there anymore. I wasn’t in a jungle. I was standing in my classroom and my desk was flipped over and my social studies test was covered in messy drawings. Everybody was looking at me and going “Ooooh!” Mr. Sergeant stomped over, shouted in my face, and sent me to the office. To this chair. So now I’m waiting to see Principal Wideman. Bad trouble.

I’m not mad at Ruby for three reasons. First, she’s my best friend. You forgive best friends. Maybe she says things to make me mad, but she’s loyal, fun, and good in a fight.

Second, it wasn’t her fault. I know why I jumped like that. All day, I’ve had this awful feeling, like I swallowed something small and metal in my sleep. I don’t want to get it out because it’ll hurt worse coming up. I know the answer to Ruby’s question, but I don’t want to talk about it.

Third, Ruby’s only in my head. I drew her to look like a friend I used to have until she moved in second grade. How am I going to stay mad at somebody I made up? She’s not real, not like Glory Miles.

My dragon.

There’s good trouble and bad trouble. Anything that gets me bad marks or sent to the principal’s office is bad trouble, and Momma says I’ve already had too much of that. Been had too much since fourth grade. Good trouble is a quest. I want one, but the dragon won’t send me on any or let me go with him on his.

“Young man!”

I look up at Ms. Jo, the school secretary, frowning at me over her typewriter. Ms. Jo calls me “young man” like she doesn’t know my name is Charles. I nearly drop my test paper as bus matrons, noisy parents, kids waiting to be picked up, and teachers clocking out squeeze into the narrow space between the office doors and the long counter. I look at the clock. It’s dismissal time.

“Don’t you hear me calling you?” Ms. Jo shakes her head. “You don’t know how to listen!” Ms. Jo goes back to pecking keys on her big gray typewriter. “That’s your problem.”

“Sorry, Ms. Jo.”

“Mm-­hmm. Ms. Wideman ain’t got time for your foolishness today. She said to expect a call home.”

That stops me. “From my teacher?” I hope so. Mr. Sergeant always says he’s going to call but never does.

“No,” says Ms. Jo without looking up, “Dr. Perez.”

My hands clench and crumple the social studies test. I look past the secretary’s desk to Dr. Perez’s office right next to Principal Wideman’s. It’s smaller. Danker. The blinds are closed on the door.

Dr. Perez is the last person I want calling my house. She might look like a white lady with a Puerto Rican name, but I don’t think she’s human. Yeah, she smiles and says hello, and she’s polite and quiet and so normal-­looking you could almost forget she was there until it was too late. She could be any kind of skin-­walking dream folk, a whole pack of hungry abatwa even, packed into a human skin, like termites.

The brass knob on her door twists. It takes forever, shrieking like a teakettle. The door cracks open with a hiss. Fingers with long, sharp red nails curl like a spider around the edge. I jump out of my chair and run into the hall and out the school. A twist of smoke curls up from the back of the crowd, and I see him. Glory Miles, my dragon.

I’ve always been short for my age, and looking up at him, Glory’s head is even with the lowest cloud in the sky. When I was little, I wasn’t able to see his face because of all the smoke puffing out his nose and mouth like a volcano. He’s got a cigarillo from Mr. Ortega’s bodega stuck in the side of his mouth so people don’t ask any questions about the smoke. Glory never stinks of cigarettes. Sometimes he smells like the incense my evil baby­sitter, Mrs. Hwang, burns for her altar, or like Momma’s cedar coat hangers.

Now, to anybody who doesn’t know anything about dragons, which is pretty much everybody but me, Glory’s an angry old man. He’s the one that’s got the mahogany-­bark skin and is tall like a redwood. You might see that he’s green forever on the inside but hard as the oak that doesn’t bend. How do I know so much about trees? My dragon taught me.

Don’t go looking for scales, wings, and sharp teeth. Dragons can change their shape to be like a man on the outside. They’re not stupid. How else is a dragon going to fit into a one-­bedroom apartment?

He looks down at me with hot green eyes. The dragon’s mad. Glory whaps me upside the back of my head. Doesn’t really hurt anymore.

“You up and lost my good shears yesterday!” he says. “Didn’t I tell you to put them back in the shed, exactly where you found them?”

“Yes, sir. Sorry.” Dragons demand their respect.

He sighs and squeezes me around the shoulder and chuckles. “Get to steppin’, boy. We got real work to do.”

2

I’m standing at the edge of the roof of my building, the Beatrix, on McFarland Street. Down on the sidewalk, kids break-­dance on cardboard as big, wide cars go by, bumping to music and bouncing over potholes. The noises mix together into the song of the City. My City. I like it here.

Behind me, the rooftop is covered with potted baby evergreens for the dragon’s December side hustle. It smells sweet like pine and fabric softener. It’s because of the air from the vents coming up from the basement. Somebody’s always doing laundry. When I’m not at school or home, I practically live up here.

At the Beatrix, we got six stories, a nasty elevator that tries to eat you, and my dragon. Above me, the sky is baby blue fabric scraped with a few chalk lines, so I can see pretty far out. Four-­ and-­ five-­story walk-­ups, some rusted water towers. Six blocks out, the A train rushes across the City, high on its track on the way east to the faraway emerald towers of downtown. When I focus on the words tagging its silver skin, they leave a color trail.

The Beatrix is in the middle of a pretty nice neighborhood. It’s about ten long blocks away from the projects and the North Bridge that crosses over to the Camlot. We don’t talk about the Camlot.

The dragon’s favorite shears, Ent Slayer, are stuck blades down in a sack of mulch leaning up against a cinder block. I pull them out.

“Told him, right where I said.” I can’t help smiling.

“I DON’T CARE!” shouts Ruby. She’s crouching like a big wet cat on the edge of the roof, staring me down. “Answer my question!” she says between clenched teeth. We’d be fighting if I hadn’t been ignoring her since school. I don’t want to talk to her right now, but you don’t ignore friends. Fine.

“How do dragons—­”

“They turn into dust.” I can’t get my mouth to make the words when they die. “But before they do, they get one wish.” Saying it out loud doesn’t make the pain go away completely, but it doesn’t sting near as much as I thought it would. She’s feeling whatever I’m feeling except, instead of running away, Ruby always runs toward danger.

Ruby cocks her head. “Okay, so how do they do that, make a wish?” she asks while walking along the edge of the building on her tiptoes, arms out. Not like she can really fall. Unlike me, she can fly. Ruby kicks and squawks at the pigeons. They don’t move.

A great inhaled breath bends the older trees toward the open door of the dragon’s toolshed and knocks down the younger ones. “Charles! What’s going on over there?” the dragon shouts. His voice shakes the building like the airplane passing overhead is about to land on us. Loose leaves swirl past and sting my eyes until I blink them away. The dragon’s not patient. Ruby’s already gone, saving me from answering her. One thing to say it out loud, another thing to spend time thinking about it and explaining it.

Praise

"An achingly well written story about the blurry line between reality and magic in childhood—and the heartbreaking ways it can be shattered."
—Shannon Chakraborty, New York Times best-selling author.

“Cameron's sentences are laden with magic, stuffed to spilling with the stuff of dreams. Through them, he takes us on a journey that's personal, poignant, phantasmagoric, and profound.”
—Carlos Hernandez, Pura Belpré Award winning author of Sal and Gabi Break the Universe

“Charming truths melt into harsh lessons about danger, bravery, persistence, and Charles' growing strength in this fast-paced coming-of-power delight.”
—Nisi Shawl, multiple award-winning author of Speculation, Everfair, and Kinning

"
There’s magic on every page of [this] mesmerizing, unpredictable story....Daydreamer is a tale that will capture the imagination of adults and children alike.’ 
-Milton J. Davis, author of Amber and the Hidden City

"A daring, monumentally lyrical achievement, if not an outright fantasy classic."
-Zig Zag Claybourne, author of Afro Puffs Are the Antennae of the Universe

"This creative debut features strong character development in its exploration of the ways Charles copes with multiple challenges that will resonate with many readers. Captivating and cathartic.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Employing compassionate prose, Cameron illustrates the transformative power of storytelling to deliver a kindhearted tale.”
Publishers Weekly

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