When Jaxon is sent to spend the day with a mean old lady his mother calls Ma, he finds out she’s not his grandmother — but she is a witch! She needs his help delivering baby dragons to a magical world where they’ll be safe. There are two rules when it comes to the dragons: don’t let them out of the bag, and don’t feed them anything sweet. Before he knows it, Jax and his friends Vikram and Kavita have broken both rules! Will Jax get the baby dragons delivered safe and sound? Or will they be lost in Brooklyn forever?
- Title: Dragons in a Bag
- Series: Dragons in a Bag, Book 1
- Author: Zetta Elliott
- Illustrator: Geneva B
- Cover Artist: Geneva B
- Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
- ISBN: 1524770450
- Publication Date: October 23, 2018
- For Ages: 8-12
- Category: Middle Grade
- Spooky-Scary or Spooky-Fun? 🎃 Fun.
I’d like to thank Random House Books for Young Readers for providing an advance copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. (Note: All quotes come from an advance copy and may not match the final release.)
(Another note: If you put much stock in age range guides, I have a minor quibble with the publisher’s stated age range for the book. I would probably rate it for kids aged 7-10 rather than 8-12. The length and reading level are better suited for the early end of the middle grade range. This feels like it could be on the cusp between a chapter book and middle grade to me. With that said, I definitely still think a 12-year-old would enjoy it.)
Dragons in a Bag is a refreshing take on children’s fantasy, setting up a sorcerer’s apprentice tale in Brooklyn using an entirely Black and brown cast (with one magical exception). Zetta Elliott tells a fun, exciting story about a young boy discovering that the world is much bigger and and stranger than he thought it was; at the same time, she explores complicated family dynamics and examines the impact of gentrification on residents of color.
If that sounds like a lot to fit into an early middle grade book, it is. Elliott makes it work, though, with her main character Jaxon. He’s a sweet, smart, and thoughtful 9-year-old trying to make sense of everything around him. Young readers will relate to Jaxon’s experiences: there are moments when Jaxon talks about not really understanding what adults are talking about that will ring true to kids who can’t quite grasp adult concepts or idioms just yet. And more importantly, Jaxon will allow a lot of young Black readers to see themselves as the hero in a fantasy story and know that they don’t have to go to school in a giant castle to perform feats of powerful sorcery.
One of Elliott’s central themes seems to be that magic used to be everywhere in this world, but it has been stamped out by colonialism and, later, gentrification. Many of the adult remarks that go over Jaxon’s head allude to this idea. We see Jaxon’s mother go to court to deal with a landlord who has illegally cut off their utilities and threatened them with eviction, showing the effects of gentrification pricing residents of color out of Brooklyn. Elliott doesn’t sugarcoat Jaxon’s family struggles, but the book remains buoyant and hopeful because of Jaxon’s kindheartedness and utter delight at all things magical.
With his mother in court, he spends the day with Ma, a friend of the family. He soon learns that Ma is a witch who has been tasked with returning three baby dragons to a land of magic, since there isn’t any magic left in Brooklyn anymore (according to Ma, who also bemoans the gentrification of the neighborhood, with its “‘Artisanal’ this and ‘organic’ that”). Jaxon volunteers to be her apprentice, and they go off on an adventure to a magical realm. Even when things go wrong — which they do at pretty much every turn — Jaxon remains determined, loyal, and excited to see more magic.
A vital #ownvoices story about a Black Brooklyn family dealing with economic injustice and a joyful, unpredictable urban fantasy tale of magic and time travel, Dragons in a Bag is an exciting start to a new series that will provide representation for a large number of young readers who rarely see themselves in the pages of fantasy books. The sequel, The Dragon Thief, promises even more representation as it seems poised to pick up from the slight cliffhanger ending of the first book and focus on characters only briefly featured in the previous story. Fans of magic, fantasy, and adventure will cheer Jaxon throughout Dragons in a Bag and will breathe a sigh of relief once they have book two in their hands.
Witches, dragons, and time travel? I give this book 4 out of 5 coffins.