Five questions for Zetta Elliott

Zetta Elliott's Dragons in a Bag (Random, 8–11 years) kicks off a new middle-grade fantasy series starring Jaxon, a young African American Brooklynite who gets a glimpse of the magical possibilities of our world (and others) when he spends a day with new acquaintance Ma.

1. In the acknowledgements of Dragons in a Bag you mention "The Trouble with Magic: Conjuring the Past in New York City Parks," your 2013 Jeunesse article calling for fantasy fiction in which urban children of color can see themselves. How did that article inform this story?

ZE: I've been writing urban fantasy fiction for almost two decades, so, in a way, my stories informed the article rather than the other way around. I've published thirty books for young readers, and it was fascinating to look at my body of work, identify patterns, and theorize about my motives. I didn't think of myself as a fan of fantasy fiction, but when I started to look critically at the books I loved as a child, they were almost all fantasy novels! Most featured White British protagonists, and as I wrote previously for The Horn Book Magazine, it has taken a long time for me to "decolonize" my imagination. I didn't know that magic could happen to anyone, anywhere — and the fact that it can is a message I now share with kids whenever I present in schools.

Traditionally in fantasy fiction, cities often figure as places that are unhealthy for kids; magic usually transports the lucky child away from the city and into a different, better realm. I want young readers to see Brooklyn the way I do — even after twenty-five years, my immigrant eyes still see magic and history and possibility around every corner and most especially in the city's parks. Prospect Park has lampposts like the one in Narnia! In my stories I tweak familiar symbols and narrative conventions to craft tales that are more inclusive, center kids of color, and grapple with contemporary issues rather than offering an escape from reality. In Dragons in a Bag I knew I wanted to write about magical creatures, but when I looked at my beloved Brooklyn, I knew I also needed to talk about gentrification and the struggle to belong and/or resist displacement. I could feel myself getting squeezed out by rising rents, and I think something intangible is lost when artists can no longer afford to live in the cities they love.

2. Why did magic leave our world? Are there places where it lingers?

ZE: Brooklyn felt special to me from the start, so I wasn't at all surprised when magical things started to happen to me there. But over time my community began to change, and fewer things seemed possible for more and more people. In Dragons in a Bag, Ma is an elder who has seen the borough evolve over decades; she's weary, ready to retire, and perhaps resistance seems futile to her. But Jaxon isn't sure — he has no memory of a Brooklyn filled with magic and wonders and what it might be like. For me, magic is about power and it thrives in societies that are just. I think cities like New York will always retain their capacity for magic as long as there are people willing to work together to create and defend equitable communities.

3. Where (or when) would you go if you could take the transporter for a spin?

ZE: As a child I was obsessed with ancient Egypt! But I never knew that Egyptians were African, and to this day Hollywood continues to cast White actors in those roles. A few years ago I started a fantasy novel that sends three city kids back in time to the Twenty-fifth Dynasty. If I had a transporter, I would go there myself and meet Taharqa, the Nubian pharaoh.

4. Do you ever write in the park?

ZE: I rarely write outside of my home, though I sometimes write in hotels when I'm traveling. For me, Prospect Park (and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden) served as a sanctuary of sorts. I would run in the park every other day and never wore headphones; it was the perfect way to unravel whatever knots had developed in my latest story. I have back trouble, too, so it's important to get up and walk at regular intervals. In the garden or park I could more clearly hear the voices of my characters. Trees and rocks tell their own stories, so sometimes just being near them triggers a memory or inspires an idea that winds up in my books. The guardhouses that transport Jax and Ma are just a five-minute walk from where I used to live.

5. What's next for Jax and Ma?

ZE: Jax has to catch a thief! But when Ma's powers are unexpectedly diminished, Jax has to rely on old friends and new allies to restore the balance that was inadvertently upset. The Dragon Thief is coming in October 2019.

From the September 2018 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher is agency assistant at the new Sara Crowe Literary. She spent nine years as an editor and staff reviewer for The Horn Book’s publications and has over seven years of experience as an indie bookseller specializing in children’s and YA literature. She holds an MA in children’s literature from Simmons University.

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