The Dragon Thief by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Geneva B.
Penguin Random House, New York, 2019.
Elementary/MG fantasy, 170 pages.
Lexile: 700L .
AR Level: not yet leveled .
NOTE: The review of this direct sequel contains spoilers for the ending of Dragons in a Bag.
Kavita has a dragon now, and Jaxon is desperate to get it back. But with Ma out of commission, Kavita gone missing, and a magical trickster interested in that dragon, it won’t be easy for the children or any of their new friends.
I was happy to see Kavita featured in this, but less thrilled about a novel in two voices. Regular readers will recall that multiple voice novels are not my favorite – too difficult to balance and often unwieldy. Luckily Elliott is strong enough to carry two voices.
Kavita considers her actions in the last book and feels remorse over stealing the baby dragon. Aunty sort of supplies the grandmotherly role in this book, although not a biological relative – she was Vik’s father’s ayah, or nanny, when he was growing up in India. As such, she’s able to give us a little bit of history – specifically about the Siddi people who were enslaved and brought to India. I had never heard of this and appreciated Elliott including it.
Every single character from the last book has at least a mention here, and there are several new characters beyond Aunty. The white, presumably Irish, Kenny O’Connor is another student in Jax and Vik’s class. He’s large, a bit of a loner, very emotional, and possibly dyslexic. I was worried at first about how this character would be portrayed, but Elliott did a great job developing him and the relationship between the three boys.
Kenny also makes a lovely contrast. While Jaxon also feels strong emotions, he has the tools and strategies to handle his feelings productively. He literally takes calming breaths in-text during stressful moments. I have never seen this in a Black boy book that wasn’t about mindfulness or mental illness, and honestly was enough for me to excuse the occasional awkwardness in balancing the two main voices.
Besides Kenny and family members of the various children, we meet a new magical human, named Blue, who has moving tattoos all over himself and a mysterious background. Also with a B name is Bejan, a fortune teller and palm reader who runs a psychic office but is also legit. Jef is a fairy who quietly dismantles gender stereotypes by being male.
In short, this is a book that kids will love. The female co-narrator, even more cultures, and even more magic give it even more appeal. Yet Jaxon’s reflective thoughts on his father’s death, the mention of the slave trade, the uncertain gender of Jef, the fact that some white characters are viewed as bullying when not, the psychic, and the autonomy the children have are all aspects I could see making adults uncomfortable.
The only part of this book I doubted was how Aunty is able to get out of bed and not need her walker after meeting the dragon. It could just be excitement, or have a magical explanation, but felt too close to the “magic solves disability” trope for me. However, since Elliott has other disabled characters who don’t get magically healed, I’m happy to give her the benefit of the doubt on this point.
As I write, it’s uncertain whether Random House will continue the series. So frustrating because not only are these excellent, but a voice in the back of my head is speculating if it’s because she told the truth. None of the topics I mention above are inappropriate for MG or even elementary in the way they are handled within the context of the novel. But some of them are topics that worry adults; in particular, white parents are frequently unnerved by mention of race or racism.
The other reason it frustrates me is because there is nothing else like these. This hits the lower MG/upper elementary sweet spot AND has diverse characters AND is urban fantasy AND is #ownvoice. Elliott also writes well, with a story that will appeal to a broad range of readers. In five years, there may be many similar books to choose among, but right now there is not and I would like to see this series continue.
And, basing on this admittedly low sample, it seems that Elliott is building what one of my mentors called a “bridge series.” Her first book technically fell in the elementary range. The second book is slightly longer and has more plot complexity. An already completed series of this type is Anna Hibiscus – young readers start off with the picture books. The chapter books begin with a series of short stories, but by the end of the series, they are elementary novels with a large cast of characters and sequential plot. I suspect Elliott will be writing a similar transitionary series between elementary and MG.
If my generally enthused tone hasn’t already convinced you, I continue to enjoy the series and look forward to reading this one aloud. Highly recommended.