Random House, 2018. Hardcover Young Readers, 160 pages
Contemporary Fiction; Fantasy. Ages 6-10.
Dragons in a Bag does one of my favorite things in stories, it weaves magic into the real. Better, what Zetta Elliott does functions more like a reintroduction. As Jaxon is introduced to the true existence of magic in Brooklyn (and elsewhere), the novel functions as an (re)introduction of the magic into the reader’s every day realities.
The beauty of an urban fantasy like hers is that when Elliott touches on the fear of the “other” or displacement, she is able to speak both to the imagination and the human. A magical creature is allowed to be both literal and metaphorical; the message and its resonant empathy remain intact either way; and children (and their elders) get to keep their magic.
The strange can become familiar. And the familiar can become strange. And the consequence is that we become open to greater possibility. Jaxon’s world will open up, and not just to “magical” worlds, but some interesting “real” world opportunities like learning more about his mother’s past, his neighborhood and its inhabitants, what little sister’s might know…
Dragons in a Bag’s whole situation is strange—and yet familiar.
Jaxon’s mother, Alicia, needs to leave her 9 year old son in someone’s care while she meets an untenable landlord in court—familiar. She chooses someone whose care she had been left in as a minor—familiar.
In the second sentence of the novel, Jaxon ‘feels tears pooling behind his eyes’, at the idea of being left behind—strange, even though it should be familiar. Soon he’ll be advocating for himself before an elder, demanding he be seen and heard—strange, even though it should be familiar.
The old woman, Ma, is someone Jaxon has never met, is suspicious in her refusal to take him on for the day, and—as it turns out—is a witch who could use an apprentice—strange, and yet familiar in children’s stories.
Ma tries to feed Jaxon food doesn’t actually want—familiar. A squirrel appears conscious of what is going on and is a pretty cunning communicator—strange, and familiar?
Dragons in a Bag has all the elements of magical adventures most children (and adults like me) dream about. Strap in.
Ma has received a mysterious box from Madagascar—a place a geography enthusiast like Jaxon can locate. [It’s useful for an adventurer to know their geography.] An observant child, Jaxon notices the box moving. He also notices what is left in the box after Ma secretly empty’s its contents into a breath mint tin. Jaxon is good at noting the clues and making connections. This creates some trouble and some relief for Ma. She could use an assistant and Jaxon agrees to help her with a delivery. They head to a transporter in Prospect Park that will take them to other times and dimensions. Yes, it isn’t just that there are dragons, witches, magic, and bizarre homeless folk, there is also an interdimensional transport. One should never expect Elliott to limit her imagination, or her ability to take the reader with her.
Trouble—both the pronoun (aka Trub) and the noun—comes when Jaxon finds himself on his own with dragons in a bag. Fortunately, both are good (and complicated) kinds of difficulties. Both Jaxon and the reader get to learn how capable and courageous our hero is and we get a reminder in how these magical- and reality-based adventures actually work. When there are things we can’t (yet or ever) do on our own, an adventurer brings in their “people,” it takes “teamwork” (76).
Jaxon calls dinosaur expert Vikram “Vik” Patel who has to bring his little sister Kavita who brings snacks and sets the plot twist we were all anticipating into action…and yet not. The mystery Elliott introduced at the beginning has taken on some interesting turns throughout and it is about to become even more deeply intriguing. The novel is proposed in a straightforward little premise of making the delivery of dragons, but it is much more compelling than that. [There is a talking rat named Nate!] Sure, I want to know what other magical creatures and their related risks I am in for with Elliott, but I also want to know more about these human creatures and their risks.
Also: which camp is right about magical realms? Should they be separate, merged, or does Jaxon have a good idea in his bridge building proposal (116-7)? I appreciate what Elliott does here, organically steeping this conversation in the context of segregation of Blacks and Whites. She builds a bridge that rests in an imperative both dwellers in the real and fantasy will find engagement. Exploring one will help in the exploration of the other…as if there is a true separation between real/imagined. Elliott is already exploring via characterization how each camp arrives at their way of thinking. For instance, it is little surprise to the reader that Jaxon would consider the idea of bridges; and notice how he follows through with his Mama and Ma (see illustration on page 143).
Ugh, I love the character’s Elliott draws, and how she draws them together. It gets fiery. And there is sweetness. She allows for the hardness of reality and the insistence of possibility.
Elliott is such an adept storyteller, that the reader/listener could be deceived into believing the crafting of the novel was effortless. A great deal of thought goes into a well-crafted work; a great deal of thought will be provoked by it. And admire how smooth that ending is. Elliott masters the pacing in this rich, but relatively brief novel. Someone please commission a series of early reader chapter books from Zetta Elliott.
Between the notes of contemporary realism and the more ‘fantastical,’ Dragons in a Bag will have broad appeal. Elliott offers humor and heart and a hero reader/listeners will be rooting for. That Elliott offers depth in intrigue and contexts while also offering a straightforward adventure story means her novel will have broad appeal across age groups and levels of comprehension. I’m excited to recommend Dragons in a Bag for family and classroom read-aloud where such a range is often involved.
One last thing that is a first thing in my mind and in Zetta Elliot’s (read Acknowledgements): it is a strangeness that should absolutely be more familiar than it is: none of the characters in the book are White. All the characters are of color, the majority are Black. It suits the genre and audience-age to include illustrations beyond the cover. Geneva B provides these and they are beautiful. But a novel introducing reality into the magic of children’s literature creates additional weight. While characters may be described, the visual is a valuable reinforcing aspect. Readers can’t default.
Elliott writes: “The “trouble” with magic, as it is represented in much of children’s literature, is that it appears to exist in realms to which only certain children belong” (Acknowledgements).
Dragons in a Bag feels familiar in the sense that of course children (and adults) of color should see themselves written into magical adventure stories published and shelved in stores and libraries; but that it is actually a rarity contributes to an unfortunate “strangeness.” As Elliott demonstrates in both her novel and its publication: pairing the familiar with the unfamiliar opens up our realms of possibility; in Dragons in a Bag she is creating an opportunity, to see not only a world with magic, but a world with Black and Brown adventurers, advocates, scholars, and wielders of magic.
We need to have more opportunities to read writers and stories like Elliott’s. We know what to do; so let’s do it.
The Sequel to Dragons in a Bag is said be released October 2019. I hope Elliott has a whole series planned.
Zetta Elliott was born in Canada and moved to the United States in 1994. She is the author of over twenty-five books for young readers, including the award-winning picture books Bird and Melena’s Jubilee. She is also a contributor to We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, published by Crown Books for Young Readers. Elliott is an advocate for greater diversity and equity in publishing. A longtime resident of Brooklyn, she currently lives in Philadelphia.
Geneva B is a self-taught illustrator based in Western North Carolina. She loves manipulating color, aesthetics, and adding whimsy with a touch of realism and calm.