Review: Dragons in a Bag

“I stare at the box so my grandmother won’t see that I’m annoyed. People never expect a kid like me to know anything about anything. I’m used to it, but it still bothers me sometimes.” p. 9

Dragons in a Bag by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Geneva B
Penguin Random House, New York, 2018.
Elementary/MG fantasy, 154 pages.
Lexile:  740L  .
AR Level:  4.7 (worth 4.0 points)  .

It’s bad enough that Jaxon’s mother dropped him off with a stranger who she calls Ma, but then it turns out Ma is a real witch…

Dragons In A Bag 1 cover resized
Dragons in a Bag by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Geneva B.

Zetta Elliott is finally getting some long-deserved recognition, and it’s nice to see her promoted through a major publisher.  I’ve marked this book with both middle grade and elementary because it fits that tricky in-between stage.  This is definitely interesting enough for MG readers, especially in the 4th to 6th range, but it’s also a book that you could read aloud to a much younger group, even as low as kindergarten. 

Mild spoiler – not a heartwarming grandmother tale – as Jax learns to his surprise, that’s just what she’s called, Ma.  That doesn’t mean he doesn’t learn a lot about his family history though and he keeps stumbling across information, even if it doesn’t always help him with his goal!

Besides which, Ma is not exactly the heartwarming type.  She reminded me strongly of my own grandmother: curmudgeonly and strict, unafraid to lay down the law, but with a heart of gold and a deep sense of right and wrong.  In this story, she’s also not thrilled to have a boy suddenly following her around and getting in her way, and she’s downright displeased with other events that have nothing to do with Jaxon.

I absolutely LOVE that Jaxon is a geography nerd.  American schools don’t teach much geography, although it’s essential for understanding so much.  Maybe he will inspire my kids to look at the map more closely.

Dragons In A Bag 1 p88 resized
A spot illustration on page 88 highlights Vik’s little sister.

Jaxon’s best friend Vik is Indian-American and obsessed with dinosaurs, as is his troublesome little sister Kavita.  This brought me joy on so many levels.  First, huge respect for any author who manages to write a fantasy novel about dragons but also work in some real information about dinosaurs too.  Second, always such a relief to see realistic friendships like this.

White authors who include non-white characters tend to fall into
A) a lonely only
B) characters of the same race as the main character or white
C) the United Nations of friendship with a token figure from every group

This problem is surely a result of primarily white authors and publishing house staff, since a poll “found that white Americans are far less likely to have friends of another race than non-white Americans, with about 40% of white Americans having only white friends” compared to 25% of non-white Americans who are surrounded only by others of their same race.  Realistically, it makes sense that some non-white book characters would have friends of other, non-white races, and I’m glad Elliott decided to write that.

Geneva B did a good job with the illustrations.  The balance for a book like this that spans several age groups is tricky, but these hit the mark.  Bright colors and bold brushstrokes appeal to younger readers, but never cross the line into childish or clownish.  Between the writing and the artwork, I would feel equally comfortable recommending this to a young advanced reader in first grade or suggesting it as a hi-lo pick for an eighth or ninth grader.

Dragons In A Bag 1 p100-101 resized
Jaxom meets two unusual characters on page 101 of Dragons in a Bag.

The foster care tag is because Jaxon lives with his biological mother, but she was raised by Ma in the sort of informal kinship/fostering situation that is a Black cultural norm.  Although Ma is not a biological relative, it’s clear they still have a strong bond.

Peril occurs, cliffs are fallen off of, children are without adult supervision, suspense is frequently high, and so on.  Dinosaurs and dragons are not to be taken lightly, and while Ma doesn’t expect him to help, she also doesn’t hide from Jaxon the adult, real-world seriousness of their mission.  In exchange, he is equally frank about the appalling conditions their landlord has imposed on their apartment (which require his mother to go to court and thus need someone to watch him for the day).

Much like the baseline low expectations people have of him because of his age, race, and gender, Jaxon is aware of their home challenges without dwelling on them.  Reading this book made me realize how much the world desperately needs more books that include housing instability without making it THE ISSUE that the plot revolves around.

Dragons In A Bag 1 p46 resized
On page 46, Geneva B. illustrates one of Elliott’s original ideas – a man who hides his magical gifts by fitting in with the homeless population that many city dwellers find invisible.

This was exactly the book I had been looking for to read aloud with my family and after some initial doubts, it was greatly enjoyed by all.  While a resolution is reached, there is an obvious opening for a sequel which I hope will be solved with another book, because this would make a lovely series.  [Edit: It took me a long time to get photographs for this and there is now a second book, called The Dragon Thief.]  My main complaint was that it was too short!  We wanted to know more about this world and the dragons and how magic works and everything.  Highly recommended.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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