Dragons in a Bag by Zetta Elliott, illustrations by Geneva B,160 pp, RL 3

Dragons in a Bag
illustrations by Geneva B

This is the review I want to write, followed by the review I have to write.

As Jaxon and his mother stand outside the door of the mean old lady his mama calls "Ma," there is tension and sadness. Their landlord has turned off the water and gas and is forcing Jaxon and his mother out of their Brooklyn apartment. Alicia needs a place for Jax to be while she tries to work it out and Ma is her last resort, for reasons Jax will soon find out. 
Ma has been sent three dragon hatchlings that she needs to deliver to a more magical realm immediately - feeding the hungry babies will make them grow and there is not enough magic in New York City to sustain the trio. Given a choice, Jax decides to accompany and aid Ma as needed and the two head into Prospect Park and to what appears to be the smallest castle Jax has ever seen. Stepping into this portal to other worlds with the help of a seemingly homeless man named Ambrose, Ma and Jax land in a realm without magic and are separated in a moment of danger. Back in the park with a bag of baby dragons, Jax turns to his best friend Vikram for help while Ambrose calls on Trouble.

While Vik turns out not to be much help at all - in fact, his tag-along-little sister Kavita ends up making more trouble - Trouble is more than helpful. He is the grandfather Jax has never met! And, he learns that Trub once hoped that Jax's mom would be his apprentice, but a trip to a magical realm when she was a girl turned her off magic for good. Trub and Jax get the bag of dragons back to Ma - and to the magical realm they need - only to find that Kavita has kept one of the dragons for herself. As Dragons in a Bag draws to a close, Jax's mom comes to terms with his decision to continue as Ma's apprentice and allows Ma to offer them a temporary home while Ma and Jax prepare to find the missing dragon and . . . The Dragon Thief!
The review I need to write: In a time when, as of 2018, only 10% of characters in children's books were African/African-American, 7% were Asian Pacific Islander/Asian Pacific American, 5% Latinx and 1% American Indian/First Nations, I have to begin by noting that the cast of Dragons in a Bag consists entirely (at least I think - we can't see Ambrose under all the clothes, so he could be white) BIPOC. I look forward to the day when I do not feel compelled to point this out in a review, but when the combined representation of BIPOC in children's books is still less than the representation of Animals/Others as characters, this needs to be front and center. As I finished reading Dragons in a Bag and turned the page to read the acknowledgements, this inscription let me know I had more to say:

The "trouble" with magic, as it is represented in much of children's literature, is that is appears to exist in realms to which only certain children belong.

Elliott goes on to write about being invited to contribute to a "scholarly anthology on urban children's literature" while attending a Race, Ethnicity, and Publishing conference in 2012. Suspecting that her last-minute invitation came only after the editors realized they hadn't included any scholars of color, she declined. They persisted and Elliott finally agreed, writing an essay on the "need for inclusive fantasy and fiction for youth." She then withdrew her essay when the editors complained that the "tone" didn't fit . . . While Elliott eventually left academia and her post as a professor to pursue fiction writing, she did win an award from the Children's Literature Association for her withdrawn essay, "The Trouble with Magic: Conjuring the Past in New York City Parks." It is wonderful to see how her Dragons duet (series???) brings people of color and urban settings (not every fantasy requires a wardrobe, castle or woods) to the world of kid's books, but,  the numbers tell us we still need more authors like Elliott creating these fantasy worlds where BIPOC are the protagonists. Yes, we have Tomi Adeyemi's Children of Blood & Bone series and Nnedi Okorafor's Akata Witch books, along with Rick Riordan Presents featuring the mythologies of BIPOC, but there is room for so many more stories to be told, so many more fantasy worlds to be imagined. 


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